Kan visits tsunami-hit region, IAEA calls N-crisis serious

Tokyo/Fukushima: Premier Naoto Kan on Saturday inspected Japan`s tsunami-hit northeast for the first time, as authorities said highly radioactive water was seeping into sea from a 12-inch crack in a containment pit at the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant, where IAEA termed the situation as "very serious".

Kan visited an operation base in Fukushima Prefecture to encourage Self-Defense Forces (SDF) personnel and other workers trying to contain Japan`s worst nuclear crisis at the plant, three weeks after the monster magnitude-9 quake and tsunami struck the country`s northeast leaving nearly 30,000 people dead or unaccounted for.

"By all means, the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant needs to be put under control with your collective efforts," Kan told the workers, including those from plant`s operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), while thanking them for their "hard work" under "harsh conditions"

"We have to work hard until we reach a point where we can say our country has overcome the quake and the tsunami disaster," he was quoted as saying by Kyodo news agency.

Before visiting the base situated 20 km from the nuclear plant, the Prime Minister flew into Rikuzentakata city in Iwate Prefecture, which was devastated by the twin disaster, on a military helicopter from Tokyo and met the evacuees there.

The Prime Minister`s visit to the northeast came as TEPCO said it has found that highly radioactive water was leaking into the sea from a 12-inch crack in a wall of the No.2 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The power company said that the level of radiation has been measured at over 1,000 millisieverts per hour.

It said the water was leaking from the crack in the wall of a 2-metre deep pit that contains power cables near the water intake of the reactor, national broadcaster NHK reported.

TEPCO is preparing to pour concrete into the cracked pit to stop the leak of radioactive water.

The radiation detected in water in the basement of the turbine building at the No.2 reactor was about 100,000 times the normal level.

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano warned of a prolonged battle against the nuclear crisis in quake-hit Japan.

"…I would say it would take more time than people think," Amano, a Japanese national, said at a press conference in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

The IAEA chief insisted that the situation at the stricken Fukushima plant remained "very serious."

Efforts to remove radioactive water from the buildings at the crippled nuclear power plant continued today, with TEPCO considering using a large artificial floating island or "megafloat" to store the tainted water.

The utility expects the artificial floating island to store about 10,000 tonnes of water, company officials said, as the amount of water detected in the plant reached around 13,000 tonnes.

Authorities will also inject nitrogen into the containment vessels of the plant`s reactors to help prevent the risk of more hydrogen explosions.

TEPCO is struggling to secure enough space in tanks to store radiation-contaminated water that has been soaking the basements of the reactor buildings and filling up tunnel-like underground trenches connected to them.

The plant operator also resumed transferring fresh water from a US Navy barge to tanks at the plant, which will be injected into the reactors to cool them down.

TEPCO has been pouring tonnes of water into the reactors and the spent nuclear fuel pools at the plant as a stopgap measure to cool them down, because serious damage to the fuel rods from overheating could lead to the release of enormous amounts of radioactive substances into the environment.

A Japanese government official was quoted as saying by Kyodo that water with high levels of radiation had seeped into the sea from the No.2 reactor, raising fears of more serious environmental contamination.

Meanwhile, Japanese and US troops were engaged in an intensive search of thousands of people who were still unaccounted for following the March 11 disaster.

They focussed their search today on tsunami-hit areas of Ishinomaki, one of the worst affected cities in Miyagi Prefecture.

They covered an elementary school where many pupils went missing following the tsunami, while some 50 divers from the SDF, the Japan Coast Guard and other entities were deployed at the nearby Kitakami River, the largest in northeastern Japan.

Some 18,000 SDF personnel and 7,000 US militarymen are involved in the three-day mission launched yesterday, during which they recovered 32 bodies so far.

According to the National Police Agency, the death toll from the quake-tsunami disaster stood at 11,734 in 12 prefectures, while the number of missing people totalled 16,375 in six prefectures.

A new quake with a preliminary magnitude of 4.8 shook the southern coastal areas of Iwate Prefecture, north of Miyagi.

A 15-member advance party of a US military radiation control team arrived at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo to help Japan deal with its worst nuclear crisis.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon expressed anxiety over Japan`s nuclear crisis, saying, "We remain deeply concerned about the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station."

"Let us rededicate ourselves to help the people of Japan who are still bravely recovering from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that killed so many people and displaced so many more," Ban said.

Under fire for his government`s lack of foresight in preparing for the worst-case scenario at the nuclear plant, Premier Kan is keen to show that he has a grip on managing the situation after the twin disaster.

Kan, upon his arrival at Yonesaki Elementary School, currently a shelter for about 160 evacuees, spoke to some of them.

Donning the blue protective clothing which officials have been wearing since THE March 11 tragedy, the Premier enquired about their condition and promised that the "state will firmly address" their problems.

"We will do the best we can to set up temporary shelter," he said.

But his 20-minute visit three weeks after the disaster was not welcomed by all the roughly 60 people present there, with one person saying it would have been better if the Premier had come earlier.

Fisherman Kazuo Sato, 45, was quoted as saying by Kyodo, "I wonder how well he could grasp the situation faced by victims…There are shelters still without electricity or water. Some people haven`t even been able to begin searching for bodies. I want (the premier) to turn attention to those matters."

"The situation would not change" even if the Prime Minister has visited the region, a 50-year-old man said, noting that the government must put more focus on compensation and other issues stemming from the nuclear crisis.

During his one-day trip, Kan was also briefed by Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba and Iwate Governor Takuya Tasso at the makeshift city hall building about the current condition of the devastated areas. The three also discussed how to go forward with reconstruction efforts.

Kan also spoke to some 20 firefighters, telling them to keep up their work. "This is going to be a long fight, but the government will work together with you until the end."

Besides, he inspected the city streets heavily damaged by the tsunami.

"We have to think of support measures from the central government`s side on how to revive fishing here," he was quoted as saying.