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Nuclear workers enter Fukushima plant for first time since explosion

Heavily-protected safety workers enter the stricken plant to connect ventilation equipment, exposing themselves to radiation

Fukushima 2011 5 5Enlarge
President of troubled Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), Masataka Shimizu (C-in blue), is joined by company employees as they bow to evacuees (R) from the town of Namie near TEPCO's Fukushima nuclear power plant, to apologise for the nuclear crisis, at a shelter for those displaced in Nihonmatsu in Fukushima prefecture, 50 kms west of the stricken nuclear power plant on May 4, 2011. Japanese engineers on May 3 started preparing to send workers inside the Fukushima nuclear power station's reactor one building, the first time workers will have gone inside the building since the March 11 disaster, when four of the six reactors at the plant were heavily damaged by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

Workers from the crippled Fukishima nuclear power plant have entered one of the reactor buildings for the first time since it was rocked by an explosion in the wake of the devastating March earthquake and tsunami.

The plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), said on Wednesday that the workers were connecting ventilation equipment to reduce the amount of radiation in the building housing reactor number one, the Associated Press reported.

Two workers in protective suits, masks and oxygen tanks, initially entered the building to gauge radiation levels in the building, according to news agency AFP.

After that, twelve staff planned to enter the building through a special tent set up to stop radiation leaking out, TEPCO said.

They would then spend about 10 minutes each inside, connecting eight duct-pipes to ventilators that will filter out the radioactive material in the air.

"Groups of four will go in one-by-one to install the ducts. They'll be working in a narrow space," TEPCO spokesman Junichi Matsumoto told reporters at a news conference before the team entered the reactor.

“It was the first entry into the reactor building by our plant workers since the explosion,” another spokesman, Satoshi Watanabe said, according to AFP.

The ventilation is needed to reduce the amount of radiation in the air inside the building before a cooling system can be installed. The work is expected to take four or five days.

The previous cooling system was damaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which left 25,000 people dead or missing. The high levels of radiation have so far prevented workers from getting inside to replace the cooling system.

TEPCO has said it may take the rest of the year to get the plant back under control.

The workers are expected to be exposed to about 3 millisieverts of radioactivity in the 10 minutes they will spend in the building, Mr Matsumoto said.

Under Japanese law, nuclear plant workers cannot be exposed to more than 100 millisieverts over five years, but to cope with the Fukushima crisis, the health ministry raised the legal limit on March 15 to 250 millisieverts in an emergency situation.

Radiation of up to 49 millisieverts per hour was detected inside the building on April 17 when the company sent in a robot.

Angry families at an evacuation centre shouted at TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu when he visited on Wednesday, telling him to kneel down and apologise, news agency Reuters reported.

"I could live with this if it was all caused by the natural disaster, but this is a man-made disaster and we have to pay for it," one man said.

"You told us for years that nuclear energy was safe. We believed you. Now look where we are," said another.

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko told lawmakers in Washington on Wednesday that Japanese authorities were struggling to control the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/japan/110505/nuclear-workers-enter-fukushima-plant-first-time-e-0