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Japan Earthquake 2011: Battered Country Faces Threat Of Nuclear Meltdown As Death Toll Rises

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NUCLEAR PLANT
AP

IWAKI, Japan - Cooling systems failed at another nuclear reactor on Japan's devastated coast Sunday, hours after an explosion at a nearby unit made leaking radiation, or even outright meltdown, the central threat to the country following a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami.

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The Japanese government said radiation emanating from the plant appeared to have decreased after Saturday's blast, which produced a cloud of white smoke that obscured the complex. But the danger was grave enough that officials pumped seawater into the reactor to avoid disaster and moved 170,000 people from the area.

Japan's nuclear safety agency then reported an emergency at another reactor unit, the third in the complex to have its cooling systems malfunction. To try to release pressure from the overheating reactor, authorities released steam that likely contained small amounts of radiation, the government said.

Japan dealt with the nuclear threat as it struggled to determine the scope of the earthquake, the most powerful in its recorded history, and the tsunami that ravaged its northeast Friday with breathtaking speed and power. The official count of the dead was 686, but the government said the figure could far exceed 1,000.

Teams searched for the missing along hundreds of miles (kilometers) of the Japanese coast, and thousands of hungry survivors huddled in darkened emergency centers that were cut off from rescuers and aid. At least a million households had gone without water since the quake struck. Large areas of the countryside were surrounded by water and unreachable.

The explosion at the nuclear plant, Fukushima Dai-ichi, 170 miles (274 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, appeared to be a consequence of steps taken to prevent a meltdown after the quake and tsunami knocked out power to the plant, crippling the system used to cool fuel rods there.

The blast destroyed the building housing the reactor, but not the reactor itself, which is enveloped by stainless steel 6 inches (15 centimeters) thick.

Inside that superheated steel vessel, water being poured over the fuel rods to cool them formed hydrogen. When officials released some of the hydrogen gas to relieve pressure inside the reactor, the hydrogen apparently reacted with oxygen, either in the air or the cooling water, and caused the explosion.

"They are working furiously to find a solution to cool the core," said Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Nuclear Policy Program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Nuclear agency officials said Japan was injecting seawater into the core -- an indication, Hibbs said, of "how serious the problem is and how the Japanese had to resort to unusual and improvised solutions to cool the reactor core."

Officials declined to say what the temperature was inside the troubled reactor, Unit 1. At 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 degrees Celsius), the zirconium casings of the fuel rods can react with the cooling water and create hydrogen. At 4,000 F (2,200 C), the uranium fuel pellets inside the rods start to melt, the beginning of a meltdown.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said radiation around the plant had fallen, not risen, after the blast but did not offer an explanation. Virtually any increase in dispersed radiation can raise the risk of cancer, and authorities were planning to distribute iodine, which helps protect against thyroid cancer. Authorities ordered 210,000 people out of the area within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the reactor.

It was the first time Japan had confronted the threat of a significant spread of radiation since the greatest nightmare in its history, a catastrophe exponentially worse: the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States, which resulted in more than 200,000 deaths from the explosions, fallout and radiation sickness.

Officials have said that radiation levels at Fukushima were elevated before the blast: At one point, the plant was releasing each hour the amount of radiation a person normally absorbs from the environment each year.

The Japanese utility that runs the plant said four workers suffered fractures and bruises and were being treated at a hospital. Nine residents of a town near the plant who later evacuated the area tested positive for radiation exposure, though officials said they showed no health problems.

As Japan entered its second night since the magnitude-8.9 quake, there were grim signs that the death toll could soar. One report said no one could find four whole trains. Others said 9,500 people in one coastal town were unaccounted for and that at least 200 bodies had washed ashore elsewhere.

The government said 642 people were missing and 1,426 injured.

Atsushi Ito, an official in Miyagi prefecture, among the worst-hit states, could not confirm the figures, noting that with so little access to the area, thousands of people in scores of towns could not yet be reached.

"Our estimates based on reported cases alone suggest that more than 1,000 people have lost their lives in the disaster," Edano said. "Unfortunately, the actual damage could far exceed that number considering the difficulty assessing the full extent of damage."

Japan, among the most technologically advanced countries in the world, is well-prepared for earthquakes. Its buildings are made to withstand strong jolts -- even Friday's, the strongest in Japan since official records began in the late 1800s. The tsunami that followed was beyond human control.

With waves 23 feet (7 meters) high and the speed of a jumbo jet, it raced inland as far as six miles (10 kilometers), swallowing homes, cars, trees, people and anything else in its path.

"The tsunami was unbelievably fast," said Koichi Takairin, a 34-year-old truck driver who was inside his sturdy, four-ton rig when the wave hit the port town of Sendai. "Smaller cars were being swept around me. All I could do was sit in my truck."

His rig ruined, he joined the steady flow of survivors who walked along the road away from the sea and back into the city Saturday.
Smashed cars and small airplanes were jumbled against buildings near the local airport, several miles (kilometers) from the shore. Felled trees and wooden debris lay everywhere as rescue workers in boats nosed through murky waters and around flooded structures.

The tsunami set off warnings across the Pacific Ocean, and waves sent boats crashing into one another and demolished docks on the U.S. West Coast. In Crescent City, California, near the Oregon state line, one person was swept out to sea and had not been found Saturday.

In Japan early Sunday, firefighters had yet to contain a large blaze at the Cosmo Oil refinery in the city of Ichihara. Four million households remained without power. The Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that Japan had asked for additional energy supplies from Russia.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said 50,000 troops had joined the rescue and recovery efforts, helped by boats and helicopters. Dozens of countries offered to pitch in. President Barack Obama said one American aircraft carrier was already off Japan and a second on its way.

Aid had just begun to trickle into many areas. More than 215,000 people were living in 1,350 temporary shelters in five prefectures, the Japanese national police agency said.

"All we have to eat are biscuits and rice balls," said Noboru Uehara, 24, a delivery truck driver who was wrapped in a blanket against the cold at a shelter in Iwake. "I'm worried that we will run out of food."

The transport ministry said all highways from Tokyo leading to quake-stricken areas were closed, except for emergency vehicles. Mobile communications were spotty and calls to the devastated areas were going unanswered.

One hospital in Miyagi prefecture was seen surrounded by water, and the staff had painted "SOS," in English, on its rooftop and were waving white flags.

Around the nuclear plant, where 51,000 people had previously been urged to leave, others struggled to get away.

"Everyone wants to get out of the town. But the roads are terrible," said Reiko Takagi, a middle-aged woman, standing outside a taxi company. "It is too dangerous to go anywhere. But we are afraid that winds may change and bring radiation toward us."

Although the government played down fears of radiation leak, Japanese nuclear agency spokesman Shinji Kinjo acknowledged there were still fears of a meltdown -- the collapse of a power plant's systems, rendering it unable regulate temperatures and keep the reactor fuel cool.

Yaroslov Shtrombakh, a Russian nuclear expert, said it was unlikely that the Japanese plant would suffer a meltdown like the one in 1986 at Chernobyl, when a reactor exploded and sent a cloud of radiation over much of Europe. That reactor, unlike the reactor at Fukushima, was not housed in a sealed container.

Reuters reports:

The risk of radiation contamination from Japan's damaged nuclear power stations has sparked food bans across the globe and more surprisingly, a buying frenzy from South Korean mothers who fear their favorite Japanese-made diapers may suddenly become unavailable.

Cho Myung-jin, who organizes online group-buying for Japanese diapers, saw her website collapse on Tuesday under the weight of traffic as panicked South Koreans chased brands they believe are better quality than locally-made products.

Read more here.

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Reuters reports:

Supply chain disruptions in Japan have forced at least one global automaker to delay the launch of two new models and are forcing other industries to shutter plants and rethink their logistical infrastructure.

Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) said on Wednesday it would delay the launch in Japan of two new additions to the Prius line-up, a wagon and a minivan, from the originally planned end-April due to production disruptions from this month's devastating earthquake.

The world's biggest automaker has suspended production at all of its 12 domestic assembly plants at least through March 26 and has estimated a production loss of 140,000 vehicles until then.

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Reuters reports:

The towering waves that splintered thousands of Japanese homes and lives has forced the country to rethink one of its most sacred Buddhist practices: how it treats the dead.

Desperate municipalities are digging mass graves, unthinkable in a nation where the deceased are usually cremated and their ashes placed in stone family tombs near Buddhist temples. Local regulations often prohibit burial of bodies.

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Reuters Reports:

An earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.0 jolted parts of northern Japan near a quake-stricken nuclear power plant Wednesday, national broadcaster NHK said.

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AOL spoke with Natalia Manzurova, a "cleaner" after the disaster in Chernobyl who suffered many side effects from radiation. Her advice to the people of japan was to leave quickly. She said:

Every nuclear accident is different and the impact cannot be truly measured for years. The government does not always tell the truth. Many will never return to their homes. Their lives will be divided into two parts: before and after Fukushima. They'll worry about their health and their children's health. The government will probably say there was not that much radiation and that it didn't harm them. And the government will probably not compensate them for all that they've lost. What they lost can't be calculated.

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The Japanese tsunami cracked a vault wide open, leaving a perfect chance for an opportunistic thief. The AP reports:

The earthquake and tsunami that pulverized coastal Japan crippled a bank's security mechanisms and left a vault wide open. That allowed someone to walk off with 40 million yen (0,000).

The March 11 tsunami washed over the Shinkin Bank, like much else in Kesennuma, and police said between the wave's power and the ensuing power outages, the vault came open.

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HuffPost blogger Simon Saradzhyan writes that despite the nuclear crisis in Japan, Russia presses on with it's nuclear program:

While Russian authorities saw the recent calamities in Japan as a chance to initiate a rapprochement with the country, Moscow's overtures to Tokyo have received a cool reception. However, Japan's nuclear crisis nonetheless represents an opportunity for Russian policy-makers to take a fresh look at the country's nuclear energy policies in order to ensure that both existing and future plants are protected against natural or man-made calamities, even those that may still seem unthinkable.

Read the rest here.

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While radiation continues to leak from the reactor, the source is known, says the International Atomic Energy Agency. Reports Reuters:

"We continue to see radiation coming from the site ... and the question is where exactly is that coming from?" James Lyons, a senior official of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told a news conference.

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Washington, D.C.'s Cheery Blossom Festival will seek to encourage aid to Japan this year. Reports the AP:

Organizers of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington are urging people to donate to the American Red Cross for earthquake relief efforts in Japan ahead of the festival that honors U.S.-Japanese relations.

Festival spokeswoman Danielle Piacente says they are working on plans to recognize the tsunami tragedy during the festival, which runs March 26 to April 10.

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Reuters reports:

Japan's crisis will have macroeconomic repercussions beyond the country, the World Trade Organization (WTO) warned Tuesday.

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Very small amounts of radiation have reached Iceland. Reuters reports:

Miniscule amounts of radioactive particles believed to have come from Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant have been detected as far away as Iceland, diplomatic sources said on Tuesday.

They stressed the tiny traces of iodine -- measured by a network of international monitoring stations as they spread eastwards from Japan across the Pacific, North America and to the Atlantic -- were far too low to cause any harm to humans.

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Japan's human crisis is being compounded by an economic one. Reports Reuters:

The tsunami that hit Japan this month took such a huge toll on people, equipment and fish that supplies of some seafood could be cut off for a year or more, industry workers said on Tuesday.

The magnitude 9.0 quake on March 11 and the 10-meter (30-foot) tsunami it triggered are known to have killed more than 9,000 people and more than 12,000 are still missing.

But the damage to the coastline north of Tokyo has compounded the human tragedy with devastating commercial woes.

Read more here.

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Power lines have been reconnected to all six nuclear reactor units. The AP reports:

The operator of Japan's leaking nuclear plant says power lines have been hooked up to all six reactor units, though more work is needed before electricity can run through them.

The plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, announced the hookup Tuesday but cautioned that workers must check pumps, motors and other equipment before the electricity is turned on.

Reconnecting the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex to the electrical grid is a significant step in getting control of the overheated reactors and storage pools for spent fuels. But it is likely to be days if not longer before the cooling systems can be powered up, since damaged equipment needs to be replaced and any volatile gas must be vented to avoid an explosion.

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@ Reuters : FLASH: Japan econmin Yosano: Power shortages likely to have serious impact on Japan economy

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@ Reuters : FLASH: Japan nuclear safety agency: White smoke rising from reactor no.2 of stricken plant likely to be steam from spent-fuel pool

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Details from the U.S. Geological Survey.

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@ Reuters : FLASH: Official death toll from Japan quake & tsunami now exceeds 9,000 - Kyodo

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From ABC News:

A top U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official today said the nuclear crisis in Japan is "on the verge of stabilizing," even as Japanese workers were forced to suspend relief efforts temporarily after gray smoke billowed from two reactors.

Full story here.

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@ BreakingNews : Radiation 1,600 times normal level is detected 12 miles from Fukushima plant, IAEA reports - Kyodo News

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Reuters reports:

Japanese authorities have taken a major step in managing a nuclear crisis by connecting all six earthquake-damaged reactors to power supply, but it's too soon to say the crisis has reached a turning point, experts said on Monday.

Power has been connected but not switched on to crank up most coolers and pumps, which may have been badly damaged in the quake and tsunami that on March 11 triggered the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Only one pump has been activated.

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Reuters is reporting that the Fukushima plant had a history of safety concerns that are now under review:

When the massive tsunami smacked into Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear power plant was stacked high with more uranium than it was originally designed to hold and had repeatedly missed mandatory safety checks over the past decade.

The Fukushima plant that has spun into partial meltdown and spewed out plumes of radiation had become a growing depot for spent fuel in a way the American engineers who designed the reactors 50 years earlier had never envisioned, according to company documents and outside experts.

At the time of the March 11 earthquake, the reactor buildings at Fukushima held the equivalent of almost six years of the highly radioactive uranium fuel rods produced by the plant, according to a presentation by Tokyo Electric Power Co to a conference organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Along with questions about whether Tokyo Electric officials waited too long to pump sea water into the plants and abandon hope of saving them, the utility and regulators are certain to face scrutiny on the fateful decision to store most of the plant's spent fuel rods inside the reactor buildings rather than invest in other potentially safer storage options.

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The first confirmed death of an American in Japan has been announced. Teacher Taylor Anderson was killed in the earthquake, officials say. MSNBC reports:

An American family was in mourning Monday after learning that their daughter and sibling, a teacher and lifelong student of Japanese culture, had been found dead in Japan –- the first known American victim of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Taylor Anderson, a 24-year-old from Richmond, Va., had lived in Japan since August 2008. She was last seen after the powerful earthquake struck Japan on March 11, riding her bike away from the school where she taught after helping to get her students home.

Read the entire report here.

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Grain cargoes are once again reaching Japan. Reports Reuters:

Grain cargoes are reaching Japanese ports after disruptions at terminals last week due to an earthquake and tsunami that held up shipments, shipping and trade sources said on Monday. Sources said vessels were using other ports that had not been affected to discharge cargoes.

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The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami has been raised to 21,000. Kyodo reports:

The total number of people killed or reported missing as a result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan stood at 21,459 as of 9 p.m. Monday, the National Police Agency said, while growing signs of reconstruction emerged, with access restored to all communities in the disaster-struck coastal prefecture of Iwate.

Read more here.

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Food radiation contamination is more serious than was originally thought. Reuters reports:

The World Health Organization said on Monday that radiation in food after an earthquake damaged a Japanese nuclear plant was more serious than previously thought, eclipsing signs of progress in a battle to avert a catastrophic meltdown in its reactors.

Engineers managed to rig power cables to all six reactors at the Fukushima complex, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, and started a water pump at one of them to reverse the overheating that has triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.

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Some radiation has been found in seawater in Japan. Reports Reuters:

@ BreakingNews : Japan's nuclear plant operator says traces of radiation found in sea water nearby - Reuters

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Miraculous survivor Jin Abe, who was found with his grandmother nine days after the quake, speaks here:

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New estimates of the damage put the price tag at 0 billion. Reuters reports:

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami caused a total economic loss of up to 0 billion, about 5 percent of Japan's output, according to an initial estimate from risk modeling agency RMS.

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The AP is reporting that smoke rising from two reactors caused workers to flee:

Gray smoke rose from two reactor units Monday, temporarily stalling critical work to reconnect power lines and restore cooling systems to stabilize Japan's radiation-leaking nuclear complex.

Workers are racing to bring the nuclear plant under control, but the process is proceeding in fits and starts, stalled by incidents like the smoke and by the need to work methodically to make sure wiring, pumps and other machinery can be safely switched on.

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The AP reports that Yukiya Amano, the United Nations' nuclear chief, says government reponses to nuclear crisis are flawed:

The United Nations' nuclear chief says Japan's nuclear crisis has exposed serious problems in how governments respond to disasters, and how they must improve their responses.

Yukiya Amano says information must be transmitted more quickly by governments and that international experts must exchange information more rapidly.

He also said Monday in remarks to a 35-nation emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency that the role of the agency itself may need to be reviewed.

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