ZAO, Japan -- Japanese military helicopters dumped loads of seawater onto a stricken nuclear reactor Thursday, trying to avoid full meltdowns as plant operators said they were close to finishing a new power line that could restore cooling systems and ease the crisis.
Meanwhile, Japan's trade minister Banri Kaieda warned of an "unscheduled, large-scale blackout" in Tokyo and surrounding areas if demand for energy exceeds this morning's, Reuters reports. Due to increasingly cold temperatures, this morning's power demand already almost reached capacity, even though electricity demand usually peaks later in the day.
According to Japan's Kyodo News, Kaieda's warning came despite Tokyo Electric Power Company's implementation of "rolling blackouts" for the fourth day in a row. An estimated ten million households will be affected by the rationing. The country's Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has also requested train operators reduce the number of vehicles running during evening commuter hours in an effort to curb energy usage.
U.S. officials in Washington, meanwhile, warned that the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in northeastern Japan may be on the verge of spewing more radioactive material because water was gone from a storage pool that keeps spent nuclear fuel rods from overheating.
The troubles at several of the plant's reactors were set off when last week's earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and ruined backup generators needed for their cooling systems, adding a major nuclear crisis for Japan as it dealt with twin natural disasters that killed more than 10,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
A Japanese military CH-47 Chinook helicopter began dumping seawater on the damaged reactor of Unit 3 at the Fukushima complex at 9:48 a.m., said defense ministry spokeswoman Kazumi Toyama. The aircraft dumped at least four loads on the reactor, though much of the water appeared to be dispersed in the wind.
At least a dozen more loads were planned in the 40 minutes that each crew can operate before switching to limit radiation exposure, the ministry said.
The dumping was intended both to help cool the reactor and to replenish water in a pool holding spent fuel rods, Toyama said. The plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said earlier that the pool was nearly empty, which might cause the rods to overheat.
The comments from U.S. officials indicated there were similar problems at another unit of the Dai-ichi complex.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said at a congressional hearing in Washington that all the water was gone from a separate spent fuel pool at the plant's Unit 4. Japanese officials expressed similar worries about that unit, but that it was impossible to be sure of its status.
Emergency workers were forced to retreat from the plant Wednesday when radiation levels soared, losing precious time. They resumed work after radiation levels dropped, but much of the monitoring equipment in the plant is inoperable, complicating efforts to assess the situation.
"We are afraid that the water level at unit 4 is the lowest," said Hikaru Kuroda, facilities management official at Tokyo Electric Power Co. But he added, "Because we cannot get near it, the only way to monitor the situation is visually from far away."
The storage pools need a constant source of cooling water. Even when removed from reactors, the rods retain radioactivity and must be cooled for months, possibly longer, to prevent them from posing a threat of meltdown.
Japanese officials raised hopes of easing the crisis earlier Thursday, saying that they may be close to bringing power back to the plant and restoring the reactors' cooling systems.
The new power line would revive electric-powered pumps, allowing the company to control the rising temperatures and pressure that have led to at least partial meltdowns in three reactors. The company is also trying to repair its existing disabled power line.
Tokyo Electric Power spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said the new power line to the plant is almost finished and that officials plan to try it "as soon as possible," but he could not say exactly when.
Reflecting the state of alarm over the issue, Japan's 77-year-old emperor expressed deep concern in a rare unexpected television broadcast on Wednesday, saying "I hope things will not get worse."
He urged the Japanese to care for each other and not give up hope. Millions of lives were disrupted by the magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which are believed to have killed more than 10,000 people.
Nearly a week after the disaster, police said more than 452,000 were staying in schools and other shelters, as supplies of fuel, medicine and other necessities ran short. Both victims and aid workers appealed for more help.
More than 4,300 people are officially listed as dead, but officials believe the toll will climb to well over 10,000.
"There is enough food, but no fuel or gasoline," said Yuko Niuma, 46, as she stood looking out over Ofunato harbor, where trawlers were flipped on their sides.
The threat of nuclear disaster only added to Japanese misery and frustration.
"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 the Japanese television network NHK. He said evacuation preparations were inadequate, saying centers lacked enough hot meals and basic necessities.
Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from a 20 kilometer (13 mile) radius around Fukushima Dai-ichi.
A Cabinet spokesman, Noriyuki Shikata, said the government had no plans to expand the evacuation plan. But the U.S. Embassy issued an advisory urging all Americans living within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the plant to leave the area or at least remain indoors.
The chief of the U.N. nuclear agency, Yukiya Amano, said he would go to Japan to assess what he called a "very serious" situation and urged Tokyo to provide better information to his organization.
Other countries have complained that Japan has been too slow and vague in releasing details about its rapidly evolving crisis at the complex of six reactors along Japan's northeastern coast.
The 180 emergency workers who were working in shifts to manually pump seawater into the overheating reactors to cool them and stave off complete meltdowns were emerging as heroes as they persevered in circumstances in which no radiation suit could completely protect them.
Japan's health ministry made what it called an "unavoidable" change Wednesday, more than doubling the amount of radiation to which the workers can be legally exposed.
"I don't know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war," said Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor of the Department of Radiology at University of Tokyo Hospital.
The government asked special police units to bring in water cannons – usually used to quell rioters – to spray onto the spent fuel storage pool at unit 4.
"By deploying defense personnel and riot police, we're doing our best to tackle the situation by spraying water to cool down the reactors. We sincerely hope that this mission will go well," Shikata said.
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 Wednesday morning. It would take three years of constant exposure to these higher levels to raise a person's risk of cancer.
A little radiation has also been detected in Tokyo, triggering panic buying of food and water.
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.