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Japan Admits Disasters Overwhelmed Government

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NUCLEAR
AP

TOKYO -- Sirens wailed Friday along a devastated coastline to mark exactly one week since an earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear emergency, and the government acknowledged it was slow to respond to the disasters that the prime minister called a "great test for the Japanese people."

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The admission came as Japan welcomed U.S. help in stabilizing its overheated, radiation-leaking nuclear complex and raised the accident level for the crisis, putting it on a par with the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania.

Nuclear experts have been saying for days that Japan was underplaying the severity of the problems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant.

Still, Prime Minister Naoto Kan vowed that the disasters would not defeat his country.

"We will rebuild Japan from scratch," he said in a nationally televised address, comparing the work with the country's emergence as a global power from the wreckage of World War II.

"In our history, this small island nation has made miraculous economic growth thanks to the efforts of all Japanese citizens. That is how Japan was built," he said.

Last week's 9.0 quake and tsunami set off a cascade of problems by knocking out power to cooling systems at the nuclear plant on the northeast coast. Since then, four of Fukushima's six reactor units have seen fires, explosions or partial meltdowns.

The unfolding disaster has left more than 6,900 dead – exceeding the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, that killed more than 6,400. Most officials, however, put estimates of the dead from last week's disasters at more than 10,000.

It also has led to power shortages and factory closures, hurt global manufacturing and triggered a plunge in Japanese stock prices.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano admitted that Japan was not prepared for what happened.

"The unprecedented scale of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, frankly speaking, were among many things that happened that had not been anticipated under our disaster management contingency plans," he said.

"In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and provided it faster," he said.

The twin disasters have officially left more than 6,900 people dead and more 10,700 missing. Emergency crews are facing two challenges: cooling the nuclear fuel in reactors where energy is generated and cooling the adjacent pools where thousands of used nuclear fuel rods are stored in water.

Both need water to stop their uranium from heating up and emitting radiation, but with radiation levels inside the complex already limiting where workers can go and how long they can stay, it's been difficult to get enough water inside.

Water in at least one fuel pool – in the complex's Unit 3 – is believed to be dangerously low. Without enough water, the rods may heat further and spew radiation.

Military fire trucks sprayed the reactor units Friday for a second day, with tons of water arcing over the facility in desperate attempts to prevent the fuel from overheating and emitting dangerous levels of radiation.

Japan's nuclear safety agency ratcheted up its rating for the Fukushima crisis, reclassifying the nuclear accident from Level 4 to Level 5 on a seven-level international scale. The International Nuclear Event Scale defines a Level 4 incident as having local consequences and a Level 5 as having wider consequences. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was rated as 7.

While nuclear experts have been saying for days that Japan was underplaying the crisis' severity, Hidehiko Nishiyama of the nuclear safety agency said the rating was raised when officials realized that at least 3 percent of the fuel in three of the complex's reactors had been severely damaged. That suggests those reactor cores have partially melted down and thrown radioactivity into the environment.

While Tokyo has welcomed international help for the natural disasters, the government initially balked at assistance with the nuclear crisis. That reluctance softened as the problems at Fukushima multiplied.

On Friday, though, Edano said Tokyo was asking Washington for help and that the two were discussing the specifics of the problem.

The U.S. said its technical experts are now exchanging information with officials from Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the plant, and with government agencies.

A U.S. military fire truck was also used to help spray water into Unit 3, according to air force Chief of Staff Shigeru Iwasaki, though the vehicle was apparently driven by Japanese workers. The Tokyo Fire Department said five of their trucks have joined in dousing operations at the unit.

The U.S. has also conducted overflights of the reactor site, strapping sophisticated pods onto aircraft to measure airborne radiation, U.S. officials said. Two tests conducted Thursday gave readings that U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel B. Poneman said reinforced the U.S. recommendation that people stay 50 miles (80 kilometers) away from the Fukushima plant.

Low levels of radiation have been detected well beyond Tokyo, which is 140 miles (220 kilometers) south of the plant, but hazardous levels have been limited to the plant itself. Still, the crisis has forced thousands to evacuate and drained Tokyo's normally vibrant streets of life, its residents either leaving town or staying in their homes.

The Japanese government has been slow in releasing information on the crisis. In a country where the nuclear industry has a long history of hiding safety problems, this has left many people, in Japan and among governments overseas, confused and anxious.

In the disaster zone, tsunami survivors, rescue workers and ordinary people observed a minute of silence Friday at 2:46 p.m. – the moment a week ago when the quake struck. Many were bundled up against the cold. As a siren blared, they lowered their heads and clasped their hands in prayer.

In the largely destroyed town of Hirota, 70-year-old Tetsuko Ito wept as she hugged an old friend she met at a refugee center. One of her sons was missing and another had been evacuated from his home near the Fukushima complex.

"Every day is terrifying. Is there going to be an explosion at the reactor? Is there going to be word my other son is dead?" she said.

She searched for her missing son for three days, then her car ran out of gas.

"I think he's dead. If he was alive, he would have contacted someone, somehow," she said. "My other son is alive, but we don't know if there's going to be a nuclear explosion."

If the situation gets worse in Fukushima, she said her son and his family will have to live at her already crowded house, which escaped the tsunami.

"It's strange when this destroyed area is a place someone would consider safe," she said.

Police said more than 452,000 people made homeless by the quake and tsunami 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 as the chances of finding more survivors dwindled.

About 343,000 Japanese households still do not have electricity and about 1 million have no water.

At times, Japan and the U.S. – two very close allies – have offered starkly differing assessments over the dangers at Fukushima. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jazcko said Thursday that it could take days and "possibly weeks" to get the complex under control. He defended the U.S. decision to recommend a 50-mile (80-kilometer) evacuation zone for its citizens, wider than the 12-mile (20-kilometer) band Japan has ordered.

Crucial to the effort to regain control over the Fukushima plant is laying a new power line to the complex, allowing operators to restore cooling systems. Tokyo Electric missed a deadline late Thursday, said nuclear safety agency spokesman Minoru Ohgoda.

Power company official Teruaki Kobayashi warned that experts will have to check for anything volatile to avoid an explosion when the electricity is turned on.

"There may be sparks, so I can't deny the risk," he said.

Even once the power is reconnected, it is not clear if the cooling systems will still work.

The storage pools need a constant source of cooling water. Even when removed from reactors, uranium rods are still extremely hot and must be cooled for months, possibly longer, to prevent them from heating up again and emitting radioactivity.

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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Around the Web

Resources related to the 2011 Japan crisis

Japan's nuclear crisis: Where things stand - Yahoo! News

Japan: Continuing crisis - The Big Picture - Boston.com

Japan nuclear crisis escalates | World news | The Guardian

Nuclear Plant Funding Undeterred Amid Japan Crisis: China Credit ...