Japan’s nuclear reactors getting out of control

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Japan’s nuclear reactors getting out of control

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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.

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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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16일 오전 인공위성이 촬영한 일본 후쿠시마 제1원전의 모습. 앞쪽 긴 건물 뒤쪽에 원자로 1~4호기가 보인다. 1호기는 수소 폭발로 손상돼 한쪽 벽면이 완전히 무너져 내렸다. 2호기는 원자로 노심이 녹아 내리고 격납용기마저 손상된 상태다. 폭발 당시 벽면에 뚫린 구멍을 통해 흰 수증기가 피어 오르고 있다. 3호기 역시 수소 폭발로 건물 윗부분이 날아갔다. 방재작업반이 원자로를 식히기 위해 뿌린 바닷물 등이 수증기가 돼 하늘로 치솟고 있다. 화재가 발생한 4호기는 건물 전체가 심하게 훼손됐다.

일본 후쿠시마(福島) 원전 사태가 최악의 상황으로 치닫고 있다. 16일 에다노 유키오(技野幸男) 관방장관은 “3호기에서 원인을 알 수 없는 흰 연기가 관측됐으며, 4호기에서는 전날에 이어 이날 오전 또다시 화재가 발생했다”고 밝혔다.

 전문가들은 4호기의 화재는 수조에 보관돼 있는 수백의 사용후 핵연료의 열 때문인 것으로 보고 있다. 냉각수 공급이 끊겨 이곳에선 제어할 수 없을 정도의 열이 발생하고 있다. 사용후 핵연료를 냉각시키지 못하면 화재가 발생하고 그 여파로 사용후 핵연료가 녹으면 방사능 물질이 무차별적으로 확산될 수 있다.



간 “동일본 박살날 수도” WSJ “타월 던지는 일만 남아”

자위대 투입 … 경찰은 물대포 동원
핵재앙 막을 최후 카드 없어 고민

후쿠시마 원전 사고가 1979년 미국 펜실베이니아주 스리마일섬에서 발생한 핵연료 누출 사고 단계를 넘어 원자로 폭발로 1만 명가량의 사망자를 낸 86년 옛 소련 체르노빌 원전 사고 직전 단계에까지 왔다는 평가가 나왔다. 하지만 일본 정부는 핵재앙을 막을 ‘최후 카드’가 없어 고민하고 있다. 월스트리트저널은 미국의 핵엔지니어 데이비드 로크바움의 말을 인용해 “일본 정부가 할 수 있는 것은 타월을 던지는 것(포기)밖에 남지 않았다”고 보도했다.

 원전을 둘러싼 위기가 고조되자 일본 경찰은 후쿠시마 제1원전 4호기를 냉각시키기 위해 물대포를 사용할 계획이라고 NHK방송이 전했다.

 일본 자위대도 사고 원전 처리를 위해 전면에 재등장했다. 도쿄신문은 방위성이 방사능 물질을 차단하는 특수장비를 갖춘 중앙특수무기방호대 150명과 화학방호대 50명 등 자위대원 200명을 후쿠시마 제1·2원전 주변에 배치했다고 전했다. 기타자와 도시미(北澤俊美) 방위상은 16일 예비 자위대 창설 이래 첫 소집 명령을 내렸다. 자위대에서 퇴역해 민간 기업에 근무하는 사람들로 3만7600명에 이른다. 자위대 10만 명을 투입해도 일손이 부족하자 사실상 민간인에게 동원령이 내려진 것이다.

 원전 운영업체인 도쿄전력은 제1원전 1·2호기 핵연료가 각각 70%와 30% 정도 손상됐다고 밝혔다. 냉각수 부족으로 연료봉이 장시간 노출돼 연료봉을 덮고 있는 금속 피복재에 작은 구멍이나 균열이 생겨 강한 방사능 물질이 누출됐다는 것이다. 도쿄전력은 이날 새로운 고압 송전선을 설치해 외부에서 후쿠시마 원전에 전원 공급을 시도하고 있다. 또 원자로를 식히기 위한 비상노심냉각장치(ECCS) 복구에도 나섰다. 원자로 온도가 상승하고 있는 제1원전 5·6호기에는 냉각수를 투입했다.

 간 나오토(管直人) 총리는 이날 밤 관저에서 사사모리 기요시(笹森淸) 내각 특별고문과 만나 “정말 최악의 사태가 되면 동일본이 박살난다는 것도 상정해야 한다”며 “이런 측면에서 도쿄전력은 현 상황에 대한 위기감이 부족하다”고 질타했다. 아키히토(明仁) 일왕(일본에서는 천황)은 이날 지진 발생 이후 첫 TV 생방송에 출연해 “현재 원전의 상황이 방심할 수 없는 상황”이라며 “사상 최대의 강진과 쓰나미 피해를 본 일본 국민의 안전을 기원하고 있다”고 말했다. 그는 또 희생자 구조작업을 하고 있는 국내외 구조팀에도 감사의 뜻을 표했다. 일왕이 자연재해에 대해 공개적으로 메시지를 전한 건 극히 이례적이다.

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