TOKYO — Some of the world's largest cement pumps were en route to Japan's stricken nuclear plant on Thursday, initially to help douse areas with water but eventually for cement work — including the possibility of entombing the site as was done in Chernobyl.
Operated via remote control, one of the truck-mounted pumps was already at the Fukushima Dai-ichi site and being used to spray water. Four more will be flown in from Germany and the United States, according to the German-manufacturer Putzmeister. The biggest of the five has an arm that extends well over 200 feet.
"Initially, they will probably pump water," Putzmeister stated. "Later they will be used for any necessary concreting work."
A construction company in Augusta, Ga., was among those redirecting the pumps to Japan. Its owner said he believes building a concrete sarcophagus will follow.
"Our understanding is they are preparing to go to next phase and it will require a lot of concrete," Jerry Ashmore told the Augusta Chronicle.
He did not expect the pump to return. "It will be too hot to come back," Ashmore said.
A cargo plane is expected to fly the truck and pump from Atlanta next week at a cost of $1.4 million.
Putzmeister concrete pumps were among those used to seal in the Chernobyl reactor after it exploded in Ukraine in 1986, and sightings of the first truck at the Dai-ichi complex last week led to media speculation that Japan was planning to do the same in Fukushima.
Meanwhile, the Mainichi newspaper reported Friday that Japan's government plans to take control of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the stricken nuclear plant, by injecting public funds.
But the government is unlikely to take more than a 50 percent stake in the company, an unnamed government official was quoted by the daily as saying.
"If the stake goes over 50 percent, it will be nationalized. But that's not what we are considering," the official was quoted as saying.
Japanese trade minister Banri Kaieda said the government has yet to debate the possibility of nationalizing or taking control of TEPCO, Kyodo news agency reported.
The government may set up a team to discuss TEPCO-related compensation issues, Kyodo quoted Kaieda, whose ministry oversees nuclear safety, as saying the firm faces a huge potential compensation bill.
TEPCO could face compensation claims topping $130 billion if Japan's worst nuclear crisis dragged on, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch estimated this week, further fueling expectations Japan's government will step in to save Asia's largest utility.
Earlier Thursday, TEPCO said that short-lived radioactive contaminants 10,000 times above health standards were found in groundwater below the power plant.
Contaminated water has been pooling at the complex since it was damaged by the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Some was already known to have leaked into the sea and soil, and now groundwater is part of that mix.
The high levels of iodine-131 were measured in groundwater 45 feet beneath the reactor at Unit 1, Tokyo Electric Power spokesman Naoyuki Matsumo told reporters.
Matsumo emphasized that the local drinking water supply was not affected, which is the main way people might be harmed by iodine-131, which decays quickly, with half disappearing in eight days.
Contamination from the plant has also been seeping into the sea, though so far poses no threat to human health. Levels of radioactive iodine rose again Thursday in seawater some 360 yards from the shore to 4,385 times the legal limit.
Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said Thursday that consistently high levels found in seawater outside the plant may mean radiation is leaking out continuously.
"That is a possibility," Agency Deputy Director-General Hidehiko Nishiyama told a news conference when asked if there was continuous contamination of the sea.
He added that regulators and engineers did not know where the leaks may be.
On Wednesday, nuclear safety officials said seawater 300 yards outside the plant contained 3,355 times the legal limit of radioactivity.
Japanese officials are increasingly seeking outside help, including experts in eliminating contaminated water from French nuclear giant Areva. Experts and a robot from the U.S. have also arrived in Japan.
"The amount of water is enormous, and we need any wisdom available," nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said.
Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon said she appreciated the enormity of the problem. Areva, a large supplier of nuclear fuel, sent staff with expertise in boiling water reactors and disposing of contaminated water and fuel rods.
"There is no precedent (for this kind of problem), and it's very complex," she said at a news conference in Tokyo.Story: View images of quake, tsunami by date, location
The U.S. has also sent a remote-controlled robot, and officials from TEPCO said they expect to use it within a few days for evaluating areas with high radiation.
In other developments:
- Efforts to recover the bodies of tsunami and quake victims from the evacuation zone have been slowed by debris, but also by fears of radiation. Police dressed in full radiation suits retrieved 19 corpses from the rubble Wednesday, a police official said. Each officer wears a radiation detector and must leave the area whenever an alarm goes off — a frequent occurrence that has often dragged the operation to a halt, the official said. "We want to recover bodies quickly, but also must ensure the safety of police officers against nuclear radiation," he said. Local media have estimated hundreds of bodies remain.
- Hundreds of evacuees from the area around the stricken nuclear plant are being turned away by hospitals and shelters because of fear they may be carrying radiation, a British newspaper reported. The Daily Telegraph said some officials were demanding that evacuees provide certificates proving they have not been exposed to contamination.
- French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Japan Thursday, the first leader to visit since the devastating earthquake and tsunami sparked the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.
- Japan's health ministry ordered more tests after a cow slaughtered for beef was found to have radioactive contamination slightly higher than the legal limit. Officials stressed that the meat was not ever put on the market. Contamination has already been found in vegetables and raw milk near the plant, which has been leaking radiation since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The cesium was found in a cow slaughtered March 15 more than 40 miles from the plant. The cow had a total cesium level of 510 becquerels per kilogram. The limit is 500. A person could eat beef with that level of contamination for decades without getting sick.
As officials seek to bring an end to the nuclear crisis, hundreds of thousands in the northeast are still trying to put their lives back together following the earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 11,000 people and left over 16,000 missing.
The government said damage is expected to cost $310 billion, making it the most costly natural disaster on record.Story: NBC's Robert Bazell answers your questions onJapan's nuclear crisis
In the small coastal city of Miyako, many people still have no idea what happened to their relatives. Residents watched intently Thursday as a firefighter in a boat and two tractors cleared the bay of rubble, part of cleanup efforts under way along hundreds of miles of Japan's northeastern seaboard.
Giant tractors and dump trucks cleared roads and sorted debris into giant piles. Huge barges with onboard cranes docked offshore and scooped up wreckage in the shallow bays.
"I lost three grandchildren," says Isamu Aneishi, 69, who sat on a log for hours and watched the men search the bay.
Video: EPA admits to glitches in radiation monitors (on this page)
A vacant lot outside Miyako has been turned into a car graveyard, with hundreds of wrecked vehicles from across the region deposited in neat rows. Some looked ready to be driven away, while others were little more than mangled heaps of metal.
Many were marked with red spray paint, indicating bodies had been found inside, and some still had keys in the ignition. Residents walked up and down the rows looking for their cars.
"This is my third time coming here," said Yasuhiro Ichihashi, 42, who watched his car get swept out of the parking lot at his factory from high ground. "They keep adding more cars every day, so I come back to check."
The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this story.