FUKUSHIMA, Japan — Japan ordered emergency workers to withdraw from its stricken nuclear power complex Wednesday amid a surge in radiation, temporarily suspending efforts to cool overheating reactors.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the workers, who were dousing the reactors with seawater in a frantic effort to stabilize their temperatures, had no choice except to withdraw.
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"The workers cannot carry out even minimal work at the plant now," Edano said. "Because of the radiation risk we are on standby."
The Tokyo Electric Power Company has indicated that the workers returned to the plant, according to CNN.
The nuclear crisis has triggered international alarm and partly overshadowed the human tragedy caused by Friday's earthquake and tsunami, which pulverized Japan's northeastern coastline. Officials believe at least 10,000 people were killed, and possibly many more.
Since then, authorities have been struggling to avert an environmental catastrophe at the coastal Fukushima Dai-ichi complex, 140 miles (220 kilometers) north Tokyo.
Wednesday's radiation spike was apparently the result of a release of pressure that had built up in one of the reactors, officials said, though it was not immediately clear which one. Steam and pressure build up in the reactors as workers try to cool the fuel rods, leading to controlled pressure releases through vents – as well as uncontrolled explosions.
Officials had originally planned use helicopters and fire trucks to spray water in a desperate effort to prevent further radiation leaks and to cool down the reactors.
"It's not so simple that everything will be resolved by pouring in water. We are trying to avoid creating other problems," Edano said.
"We are actually supplying water from the ground, but supplying water from above involves pumping lots of water and that involves risk. We also have to consider the safety of the helicopters above," he said.
A U.S. nuclear expert said he feared the worst.
"It's more of a surrender," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who now heads the nuclear safety program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an activist group. "It's not like you wait 10 days and the radiation goes away. In that 10 days things are going to get worse."
"It's basically a sign that there's nothing left to do but throw in the towel," Lochbaum said.
Edano said the government expects to ask the U.S. military for help, though he did not elaborate. He said the government is still considering whether to accept offers of help from other countries.
The government has ordered some 140,000 people in the vicinity to stay indoors. A little radiation was also detected in Tokyo, triggering panic buying of food and water.
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 need 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 national news agency, Kyodo, said that 33 percent of the fuel rods at the No. 2 reactor were damaged and that the cores of both reactors were believed to have partially melted.
"We don't know the nature of the damage," said Minoru Ohgoda, spokesman for the country's nuclear safety agency. "It could be either melting, or there might be some holes in them."
Meanwhile, the outer housing of the containment vessel at the No. 4 unit erupted in flames early Wednesday, said Hajimi Motujuku, a spokesman for the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Japan's nuclear safety agency said fire and smoke could no longer be seen at Unit 4, but that it was unable to confirm that the blaze had been put out.
Yuasa reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writers Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo and David Stringer in Ofunato contributed to this report.
03/23/2011 4:31 PM EDT
South Korean Diaper Panic Results From Quake
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.
03/23/2011 4:29 PM EDT
More Delays In Japan
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.
03/23/2011 6:59 AM EDT
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.
03/22/2011 7:03 PM EDT
6.0 Earthquake Hits Northern Japan
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.
03/22/2011 4:30 PM EDT
Chernobyl Survivor To Japan: 'Run!'
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.
03/22/2011 2:55 PM EDT
Bank Robber Hits Tsunami-Cracked Vault
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.
03/22/2011 2:01 PM EDT
Russia Presses Ahead With Nuclear Plants After Japan Crisis
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.
03/22/2011 1:08 PM EDT
Reactor Continues To Leak Radiation
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.
03/22/2011 12:10 PM EDT
National Cherry Blossom Festival Seeks To Aid Japan
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.
03/22/2011 11:02 AM EDT
WTO Issues Warning
Japan's crisis will have macroeconomic repercussions beyond the country, the World Trade Organization (WTO) warned Tuesday.