YAMAGATA, Japan -- Smoke billowed from a building at Japan's crippled nuclear power plant Friday as emergency crews worked to reconnect electricity to cooling systems and spray more water on overheating nuclear fuel at the tsunami-ravaged facility.
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Four of the troubled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant's six reactor units have seen fires, explosions or partial meltdowns in the week since the tsunami. While the reactor cores where energy is generated are a concern, water in the pools used to store used nuclear fuel are also major worries. Water in at least one fuel pool – in the complex's Unit 3 – is believed to be dangerously low, exposing the stored fuel rods. Without enough water, the rods may heat further and spew out radiation.
"We see it as an extremely serious accident," Yukiya Amano, the head of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters Friday just after arriving in Tokyo. "This is not something that just Japan should deal with, and people of the entire world should cooperate with Japan and the people in the disaster areas."
Frantic efforts were made Thursday to douse a number of units with water, and authorities were preparing to repeat many of those efforts.
Friday's smoke came from the complex's Unit 2, and its cause was not known, the nuclear safety agency said. An explosion had hit the building on Tuesday, possibly damaging a crucial cooling chamber that sits below the reactor core.
Last week's 9.0 quake and tsunami in Japan's northeast set off the nuclear problems by knocking out power to cooling systems at the reactors. The unfolding crises have led to power shortages in Japan, forced auto and other factories to close, sending shockwaves through global manufacturing and trade, and triggered a plunge in Japanese stock prices.
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 holing up in their homes.
The Japanese government has been slow in releasing information on the crisis, even as the troubles have multiplied. In a country where the nuclear industry has a long history of hiding its safety problems, this has left many people – in Japan and among governments overseas – confused and anxious.
"I feel a sense of dread," said Yukiko Morioka, 63, who has seen business dry up at her lottery ticket booth in Tokyo. "I'm not an expert, so it's difficult to understand what's going on. That makes it scarier."
A senior official with the U.N. nuclear agency said Thursday there had been "no significant worsening" at the nuclear plant but that the situation remained "very serious." Graham Andrew told reporters in Vienna that nuclear fuel rods in two reactors were only about half covered with water, and they were also not completely submerged in a third.
Edano said Friday that Tokyo is asking the U.S. government for help and that the two are discussing the specifics.
"We are coordinating with the U.S. government as to what the U.S. can provide and what people really need," Edano said.
At times, the two close allies have offered starkly differing assessments over the dangers at Fukushima. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko 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 30-mile (50-kilometer) band Japan has ordered.
Crucial to the effort to regain control over the Fukushima plant is laying a new power line to the plant, allowing operators to restore cooling systems. The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., missed a deadline late Thursday but said Friday that workers hoped to complete the effort in 10 to 15 hours, said nuclear safety agency spokesman Minoru Ohgoda.
But the utility is not sure the cooling systems will still function. If they don't, electricity won't help.
The official death toll from the disasters stood at 6,405 as of Friday morning, with 10,259 missing, the national police agency said.
President Barack Obama appeared on television to assure Americans that officials do not expect harmful amounts of radiation to reach the U.S. or its territories. He also said the U.S. was offering Japan any help it could provide.
A utility official said Wednesday that the company has been unable to get information such as water levels and temperatures from any of the spent fuel pools in the four most troubled reactors.
Workers have been dumping seawater when possible to control temperatures at the plant since the quake and tsunami knocked out power to its cooling systems, but they tried even more desperate measures on Units 3 and 4.
On Thursday, military helicopters dumped thousands of gallons of water from huge buckets onto Unit 3, and also used military firefighting trucks normally used to extinguish fires at plane crashes.
Officials announced Friday they would not continue with the helicopter drops – televised footage appeared to show much of that water blowing away – but would continue spraying from the trucks.
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.
At the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, a core team of 180 emergency workers has been rotating out of the complex to minimize radiation exposure.
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.
In Washington, the State Department warned U.S. citizens to consider leaving the country and offered voluntary evacuation to family members and dependents of U.S. personnel in the cities of Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna, Elaine Kurtenbach, Shino Yuasa, Jeff Donn and Tim Sullivan in Tokyo 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.