SENDAI, Japan (AFP) – Plutonium has been detected in soil at a stricken nuclear plant in Japan and highly contaminated water has leaked from a reactor building, the operator said Monday, fanning environmental fears.
Radiation worries have disrupted efforts to restart the cooling system of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which was battered by a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that left more than 28,000 people dead or missing.
With Japan struggling to contain its worst ever atomic crisis, France said its nuclear groups Areva and EDF had been asked to help in a situation which Industry Minister Eric Besson described as "extremely critical".
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said plutonium was found at five spots within the crippled facility, but stressed the levels were not believed to be a hazard to human health.
"Of the samples from five locations, we believe that there is a high possibility that at least two of them are directly linked with the current reactor accident," a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co. said.
The level of plutonium was similar to that detected in Japan after neighbouring countries such as North Korea and China conducted nuclear experiments, the spokesman said.
According to the US environmental protection agency, external exposure to plutonium poses "very little health risk", but internal exposure "is an extremely serious health hazard."
Plutonium is formed from uranium in nuclear reactors and generally stays in the body for decades, exposing organs and tissues to radiation and increasing the risk of cancer, it said.
The massive earthquake and tsunami which crashed into northeast Japan knocked out the cooling systems for the six reactors of the Fukushima plant, which has been leaking radiation into the atmosphere.
The number three reactor is a particular concern because it contains a potentially volatile mix of uranium and plutonium.
The latest discovery will add to environmental concerns over contamination which has already reached the air and been detected in farm produce and tap water, although Japan says there is no imminent health threat.
"We will continue to study soil samples from the plant for other radioactive materials," the TEPCO spokesman said. "We will strengthen the monitoring mechanism."
Earlier Monday the plant operator said a large amount of highly radioactive water had escaped from the number two reactor's turbine building into an underground tunnel and might leak into the ocean.
The water is thought to have leaked from the vessel containing the fuel rods -- which are suspected to have temporarily melted -- or from the pipe system.
The radiation in the water was measured at 1,000 millisieverts an hour, a dose that can cause temporary radiation sickness with nausea and vomiting for people who are exposed.
Seawater near the plant has been found to contain radioactive iodine more than 1,850 times the legal limit, although it is not exactly clear how the contamination spread to the Pacific Ocean.
TEPCO was severely reprimanded by the government Monday, a day after it erroneously said radiation in water at the site had reached 10 million times the normal level.
It later issued a much lower -- but still dangerous -- figure.
"Considering the fact that the monitoring of radioactivity is a major condition to ensure safety, this kind of mistake is absolutely unacceptable," said top government spokesman Yukio Edano.
Adding to questions about the handling of the crisis, TEPCO said its president Masataka Shimizu took several days off from a joint emergency taskforce with the government due to sickness, but has now returned to work.
The group has also faced criticism over an incident last week in which two plant workers braving hazardous conditions were hospitalised because they stepped in radioactive water without proper boots.
TEPCO shares plunged nearly 18 percent on the Tokyo Stock Exchange on Monday, while the broader market saw a day of subdued trading as the Nikkei 225 index slipped 0.6 percent.
Work to restore power at reactor two has been suspended since Sunday because of the danger posed by the radioactive water leaks.
The immediate focus is on draining the highly radioactive water from the turbine room basements, but without releasing it into the environment.
"It is very unfortunate that leaked water was directly exposed to melted fuel rods. Due to this we continue to do our utmost to prevent health hazards escalating," Edano said.
The nuclear crisis remains a distraction from the dire plight of hundreds of thousands made homeless in the quake-tsunami tragedy.
The disaster, Japan's deadliest since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, has left 10,901 dead and 17,649 missing, the National Police Agency said Monday.