FUKUSHIMA, Japan -- Emergency workers forced to retreat from a tsunami-stricken Japanese nuclear power plant when radiation levels soared prepared to return Wednesday night after emissions dropped to safer levels.
The pullback cost precious time in the fight to prevent a nuclear meltdown, further escalating a crisis spawned by last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami that pulverized Japan's northeastern coast and likely killed more than 10,000 people.
It was unclear what happened in the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant's overheating reactors after late morning, when the workers stopped pumping in seawater trying to cool their fuel rods. Officials gave only sparse information about the reactors.
But conditions at the plant appeared to be worsening. White steam-like clouds drifted up from one reactor which, the government said, likely emitted the burst of radiation that led to the workers' withdrawal. The plant's operator reported a fire at another reactor for the second time in two days.
At one point, 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. The defense ministry later said it said it had decided against making an airborne drop because of the high radiation levels.
Officials are facing increasing criticism over poor communication and coordination.
Even the chief of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, said Wednesday he would visit Japan as soon as possible to obtain "firsthand information" about the nuclear crisis and improve the flow of information from the Japanese government.
"The anxiety and anger being felt by people in Fukushima have reached a boiling point," the governor of Fukushima prefecture, Yuhei Sato, fumed in an interview with NHK. He criticized preparations for an evacuation if conditions worsen and said centers already housing people moved from nearby the plant do not have enough hot meals and basic necessities.
The nuclear crisis has triggered international alarm and partly overshadowed the human tragedy caused by Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami, a blast of black seawater that pulverized Japan's northeastern coastline. The quake was one of the strongest recorded in history.
Millions of people struggled for a fifth day with little food, water or heat, and already chilly temperatures turned to snow in many areas. Police say more than 452,000 people are staying in temporary shelters, often sleeping on the floor in school gymnasiums.
More than 4,300 people are officially listed as dead, but officials believe the toll will climb over 10,000 since several thousand more are listed as missing.
In an extremely rare address to the nation, Emperor Akihito expressed condolences and urged Japan not to give up.
"It is important that each of us shares the difficult days that lie ahead," said Akihito, 77, a figure deeply respected across the country. "I pray that we will all take care of each other and overcome this tragedy."
He also expressed his worries over the nuclear crisis, saying: "With the help of those involved I hope things will not get worse."
Since the quake and wave hit, authorities have been struggling to avert an environmental catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex, 140 miles (220 kilometers) north of Tokyo. The tsunami knocked out the backup diesel generators needed to keep nuclear fuel cool at the plant's six reactors, setting off the atomic crisis.
In the city of Fukushima, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) inland from the nuclear complex, hundreds of harried government workers, police officers and others struggled to stay on top of the situation in a makeshift command center.
An entire floor of one of the prefecture's office buildings had been taken over by people tracking evacuations, power needs, death tolls and food supplies.
In one room, uniformed soldiers evaluated radiation readings on maps posted across a wall. In another, senior officials were in meetings throughout the day, while nuclear power industry representatives held impromptu briefings before rows of media cameras.
Wednesday's radiation spike was believed to have come from Unit 3, where workers are struggling with a fuel storage pond believed to be leaking radiation, as well as possible damage to the containment vessel - the thick concrete armor built around the reactor - that would allow radiation to escape.
"The workers cannot carry out even minimal work at the plant now," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Wednesday morning at briefing aired on television, as smoke billowed above the complex. "Because of the radiation risk we are on standby."
With no workers on site, efforts to cool the reactors likely ceased altogether, said Michael Friedlander, a former nuclear power plant operator who worked at a General Electric boiling water reactor in the United States similar to the stricken ones in Japan.
"They're in right now what's called a feed-and-bleed mode. In order to keep the core covered and keep the reactor cool they have to feed in water," said Friedlander, who is currently based in Hong Kong. "It's something that they physically have to be present to do."
Elevated levels of radiation were detected well outside the 20-mile (30-kilometer) emergency area around the plants. In Ibaraki prefecture, just south of Fukushima, officials said radiation levels were about 300 times normal levels by late morning. It would take three years of constant exposure to these higher levels to raise a person's risk of cancer.
A little radiation was also detected in Tokyo, triggering panic buying of food and water.
Given the reported radiation levels, John Price, an Australian-based nuclear safety expert, said he saw few health risks for the general public so far. He was concerned for the workers, who he said were almost certainly working in full body suits and breathing through respirators. The workers at the forefront of the fight - a core team of about 180 - had been regularly rotated in and out of the danger zone to minimize their radiation exposure.
Price said he was surprised by how little information the Japanese were sharing.
"We don't know even the fundamentals of what's happening, what's wrong, what isn't working. We're all guessing," he said. "I would have thought they would put on a panel of experts every two hours."
There are six reactors at the plant. Units 1, 2 and 3, which were operating last week, shut down automatically when the quake hit. Since then, all three have been rocked by explosions. Compounding the problems, on Tuesday a fire broke out in Unit 4's fuel storage pond, an area where used nuclear fuel is kept cool, causing radioactivity to be released into the atmosphere.
Units 4, 5 and 6 were shut at the time of the quake, but even offline reactors have nuclear fuel - either inside the reactors or in storage ponds - that needs to be kept cool.
Meanwhile, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency estimated that 70 percent of the rods have been damaged at the No. 1 reactor.
Japan's Kyodo News agency said 33 percent of the fuel rods at the No. 2 reactor were damaged.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Japan's crisis will have macroeconomic repercussions beyond the country, the World Trade Organization (WTO) warned Tuesday.
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.
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.
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.
|@ Reuters : FLASH: Japan econmin Yosano: Power shortages likely to have serious impact on Japan economy|
|@ Reuters : FLASH: Japan nuclear safety agency: White smoke rising from reactor no.2 of stricken plant likely to be steam from spent-fuel pool|
|@ Reuters : FLASH: Official death toll from Japan quake & tsunami now exceeds 9,000 - Kyodo|
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.
|@ BreakingNews : Radiation 1,600 times normal level is detected 12 miles from Fukushima plant, IAEA reports - Kyodo News|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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|
Miraculous survivor Jin Abe, who was found with his grandmother nine days after the quake, speaks here:
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.
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.
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.