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Japan Nuclear Plant Rocked By Second Blast, Nuclear Rods Likely Melting

Japan Nuclear

AP/The Huffington Post   First Posted: 03/14/11 09:20 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:40 PM ET

SOMA, Japan -- The second hydrogen explosion in three days rocked a Japanese nuclear plant Monday, sending a massive cloud of smoke into the air and injuring 11 workers. The blast was felt 25 miles (40 kilometers) away, but the plant's operator said the radiation levels at the affected unit were still within legal limits.

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Later Monday, fuel rods at a separate reactor in the plant were fully exposed after it lost its ability to cool down, officials said. The exposure raises the risk of the unit overheating and adds to fears of a potential third explosion at the plant.

The morning blast occurred in Unit 3, which authorities have been trying to cool with sea water after a system failure in the wake of Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami, triggered an order for hundreds of people to stay indoors, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. The two disasters left at least 10,000 people dead.

Operators knew the sea water flooding would cause a pressure buildup in the reactor containment vessel - and potentially lead to an explosion - but felt they had no choice if they wanted to avoid a complete meltdown. In the end, the hydrogen in the released steam mixed with oxygen in the atmosphere and set off the blast.

The inner containment shell surrounding the Unit 3 reactor was intact, Edano said, allaying some fears of the risk to the environment and public. But the outer building around the reactor appeared to have been devastated, with only a skeletal frame remaining.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, said radiation levels at Unit 3 were well under the levels where a nuclear operator must file a report to the government.

A similar explosion occurred Saturday at the plant's Unit 1, injuring four workers, causing mass evacuations and destroying much of the outer building.

Shortly after Monday's explosion, Tokyo Electric warned it had lost the ability to cool Unit 2. Hours later, the company said fuel rods in that unit were fully exposed, at least temporarily.

The company was trying to channel sea water into the reactor to cover the rods, cool them down and prevent another explosion at the stricken plant.

More than 180,000 people have evacuated the area in recent days, and up to 160 may have been exposed to radiation - pouring misery onto those already devastated by the twin disasters.

Japan's meteorological agency reported the prevailing wind in the area of the stricken nuclear plant was heading east - to the Pacific.

Seventeen U.S. military personnel involved in helicopter relief missions were found to have been exposed to low levels of radiation upon returning to the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier about 100 miles (160 kilometers) offshore.

U.S. officials said the exposure level was roughly equal to one month's normal exposure to natural background radiation in the environment, and after scrubbing with soap and water, the 17 were declared contamination-free.

But as a precaution, the U.S. said the carrier and other U.S. 7th Fleet ships involved in relief efforts had shifted to another area.

While Japan has aggressively prepared for years for major earthquakes, reinforcing buildings and running drills, the impact of the tsunami - which came so quickly that not many people managed to flee to higher ground - was immense.

By Monday, officials were clearly overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, with millions of people having spent three nights without electricity, water, food or heat in near-freezing temperatures.

Officials in one devastated town said they were running out of body bags.

Officials have declared states of emergency at six Fukushima reactors, where Friday's twin disasters knocked out the main cooling systems and backup generators. Three are at Dai-ichi and three at the nearby Fukushima Daini complex.

Most attention, though, has been focused on Dai-ichi units 1 and 3, where operators have been funneling in sea water in a last-ditch measure to cool the reactors. A complete meltdown - the melting of the radioactive core - could release radioactive contaminants into the environment and pose major, widespread health risks.

Edano said no Fukushima reactor was near that point, and he was confident of escaping the worst scenarios.

International scientists say there are serious dangers but little risk of a Chernobyl-style catastrophe. Chernobyl, they note, had no containment shell around the reactor.

"The likelihood there will be a huge fire like at Chernobyl or a major environmental release like at Chernobyl, I think that's basically impossible," said James F. Stubbins, a nuclear energy professor at the University of Illinois.

And, some analysts noted, the length of time since the nuclear crisis began indicates that the chemical reactions inside the reactor were not moving quickly toward a complete meltdown.

"We're now into the fourth day. Whatever is happening in that core is taking a long time to unfold," said Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the nuclear policy program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They've succeeded in prolonging the timeline of the accident sequence."

But despite official assurances, many residents expressed fear over the situation.

"First I was worried about the quake," said Kenji Koshiba, a construction worker who lives near the plant. "Now I'm worried about radiation." He spoke at an emergency center in Koriyama, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the most troubled reactors.

Overall, more than 1,500 people had been scanned for radiation exposure in the area, officials said.

The U.N. nuclear agency said a state of emergency was also declared Sunday at another complex, the Onagawa power plant, after higher-than-permitted levels of radiation were measured there. It said Japan informed it that all three of those reactors there were under control.

Four nuclear complexes in northeastern Japan have reported some damage from the quake or the tsunami.

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.

Read the rest here.

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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 ($500,000).

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 $300 billion. Reuters reports:

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami caused a total economic loss of up to $300 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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