Japan’s nuclear reactors getting out of control

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Japan’s nuclear reactors getting out of control


Damage after an earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 240 kilometers north of Tokyo, is seen in this satellite image taken 9:35 am local time yesterday. [REUTERS/YONHAP]

Despite desperate efforts, the Japanese government, military and power authorities appeared to be losing control over the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant, as emergency workers were ordered to withdraw from the site due to spiking radiation levels.

Of the six reactors at the plant, explosions and fires were reported at reactor No. 4 and radioactive steam was detected from reactor No. 3. No detailed information was available about the incidents as authorities were unable to approach the site. Four reactors are in trouble, and the remaining two reactors also appear to have rising temperatures in pools storing spent nuclear fuel.

There is concern that unless the Fukushima plant is brought under control, radiation will endanger Tokyo and other cities.


Yesterday, Japanese Emperor Akihito expressed condolences to the victims of Friday’s earthquake and tsunami in an address to the nation on public television.

“I hope as many people as possible will be confirmed safe,” he said. “By mustering all of our strength for a swift rescue effort, I can only wish for even the smallest improvement in the situation of the victims, to provide hope for restoration.”

The Institute for Science and International Security released a statement on Tuesday local time that the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was close to level 6 on the International Nuclear Events Scale.

The Japanese Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) had initially announced it as a level four on the same scale.

“This accident cannot be seen as a level four,” the statement said, referring to explosions in reactors No. 1 through 3 and the fire at reactor No. 4. It emphasized that support of the international community was needed for emergency measures.

The INES ranks nuclear events from 0 to 8, 8 being the most dangerous. The Chernobyl incident of 1986 was ranked at level 7 while the Three Mile Island crisis in 1979 was a 5.

Japan ordered most emergency workers to withdraw from the stricken nuclear plant yesterday amid a surge in radiation, temporarily suspending efforts to cool the overheating reactors.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the workers, who had been dousing the reactors with seawater in a frantic effort to stabilize their temperatures, had no choice but to pull back from the most dangerous areas.

“The workers cannot carry out even minimal work at the plant now,’’ Edano said, as smoke billowed above the crippled complex. “Because of the radiation risk we are on standby.’’

Later, an official with Tokyo Electric Power, which operates the plant, said the team had withdrawn about 500 meters (547 yards) from the complex, but were getting ready to go back in.

Later yesterday, national broadcaster NHK showed military helicopters lifting off to survey radiation levels above the complex, preparing to dump water onto the most troubled reactors in a desperate effort to cool them down.

But Edano has already warned that it may not work.

“We are actually supplying water from the ground, but supplying water from above involves pumping lots of water and that involves risk,” he said. “We also have to consider the safety of the helicopters above.”

Radiation levels had gone down by late yesterday, but it was not immediately clear if the workers had been allowed back in, or how far away they had withdrawn. The workers at the forefront of the fight - a core team of 70 - had been regularly rotated in and out of the danger zone to minimize their radiation exposure.

Meanwhile, officials said radiation levels in areas 20 kilometers away from the plant were about 6,600 times normal levels by late morning. That figure is 20 times the total amount of radiation exposure allowed in an entire year for a plant worker in Japan.

Japan has distributed 230,000 units of iodide to evacuation centers in the area around the nuclear plants, according to officials. The ingestion of iodide can help prevent the accumulation of radioactive iodine in the thyroid.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan yesterday appealed for calm as the government worked to help hundreds of thousands of people facing freezing temperatures with no power.

A cold front descended on northern Japan, making life more miserable for about 440,000 people in evacuation centers already suffering from food and water shortages. Snow that fell yesterday in Miyagi Prefecture is being melted and used for toilet water and washing, said witnesses.

A severe shortage of gasoline and kerosene is also adding to the hardships of the evacuees, and trucks and ambulances are unable to move due to the fuel shortage. The Japanese government said yesterday that it was in the last stages of getting much-needed fuel to the quake-stricken areas.

“I would like to tell all the people of Japan to save energy,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano in Tokyo yesterday. “We are not in immediate shortage, but we are in the process of sending necessary fuel.”

Korea, Japan’s closest neighbor, is considering a plan to send additional supplies, including drinking water, for evacuees in Japan. Korea already sent rescue personnel to northeastern Japan, who urgently requested additional supplies due to lack of goods on the ground and the cold weather.

The team sent to Japan on Monday said the situation there is the worst they have ever seen.

“I’ve been to Sichuan and Haiti,” team member Baek Geun-heum told the JoongAng Ilbo, “but this place is the most terrible.” Baek said there were no houses or other buildings in the areas he visited and no survivors had been found, though they were using special body detectors and cameras to find survivors.

The number of casualties from the disaster in Japan has exceeded 11,000, according to NHK, the first time Japan has recorded such a number of deaths from a single incident since World War II. Japanese authorities have confirmed 3,676 deaths and 7,843 missing as of yesterday. The number of injured is 2,044, said the National Police Agency Emergency Disaster Headquarters.

France began evacuating its nationals, and Asian countries moved to screen food imports from Japan. China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine told ports to strengthen monitoring for radioactive substances, Xinhua News Agency said.

Bloomberg, AP
By Christine Kim [christine.kim@joongang.co.kr]

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