Engineers pin hopes on polymer to stop nuke leak

TOKYO — Engineers pinned their hopes on chemicals, sawdust and shredded newspaper to stop highly radioactive water pouring into the ocean from Japan’s tsunami-ravaged nuclear plant Sunday as officials said it will take several months to bring the crisis under control, the first time they have provided a timetable.

Concrete already failed to stop the tainted water spewing from a crack in a maintenance pit, and the new mixture did not appear to be working either, but engineers said they were not abandoning it.

The Fukushima Da-ichi plant has been leaking radioactivity since the March 11 tsunami carved a path of destruction along Japan’s northeastern coast, killing as many as 25,000 people and knocking out key cooling systems that kept it from overheating. People living within 12 miles of the plant have been forced to abandon their homes.

The government said Sunday it will be several months before the radiation stops and permanent cooling systems are restored. And there will be years of work ahead to clean up the area around the complex and figure out what to do with it.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said the timetable is based on the first step, pumping radioactive water into tanks, being completed quickly and the second, restoring cooling systems, being done within a matter of weeks or months.

On Saturday, workers at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. plant discovered an 8-inch crack in a maintenance pit and said they believe water from it may be the source of some of the high levels of radioactive iodine that have been found in the ocean for more than a week.

Engineers tried to seal the crack with concrete Saturday, but that effort failed.

So on Sunday they went farther up the system and injected sawdust, three garbage bags of shredded newspaper and a polymer — similar to one used to absorb liquid in diapers — that can expand to 50 times its normal size when combined with water.

The polymer mix had not stopped the leak by Sunday night, but it also had not leaked out of the crack along with the water, so engineers were stirring it in an attempt to get it to expand. They expected to know by this morning if it would work.

Tens of thousands of people are living in shelters, 200,000 households don’t have water, and 170,000 don’t have electricity.

U.S. and Japanese forces Sunday ended their all-out search for bodies.

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