Japan sees some stabilization in nuclear crisis

March 17, 2011 - 0:0

TOKYO (Reuters) – One of six tsunami-crippled nuclear reactors appeared to stabilize Saturday as Japan raced to restore power to the stricken power plant to cool it and prevent a catastrophic release of radiation.

Engineers reported some rare success after fire trucks sprayed water for several hours on reactor No.3, widely considered the most dangerous at the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex because of its use of highly toxic plutonium.
""The situation there is stabilizing somewhat,"" Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference.
Japan also reported its first contamination of food since the powerful March 11 earthquake and tsunami that has left nearly 18,000 people dead or missing, turned entire towns into debris-strewn wastelands and triggered a nuclear emergency.
Japan ordered a halt to all food product sales from Fukushima prefecture, said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which warned that radioactive iodine found in food can pose a short-term risk to human health.
Radiation levels in milk from a Fukushima farm about 30 km (18 miles) from the plant, and spinach grown in Ibaraki, a neighboring prefecture, exceeded government limits, Edano said.
Faint radiation was also found in tap water in Maebashi, 100 km (62 miles) north of Tokyo, Kyodo News reported.
Edano told reporters before the IAEA warning that higher radiation levels posed no risk to human health, but the findings are sure to heighten scrutiny of Japanese food exports, especially in Asia, their biggest market.
Restaurants in Singapore are already considering importing sushi, sashimi and other Japanese ingredients from elsewhere.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, facing Japan's biggest disaster since World War Two, sounded out the opposition about forming a government of national unity to deal with the crisis. But the leader of the largest opposition party rejected the idea out of hand.
Despite signs of progress Saturday, the crisis looked far from tamed.
A 1.5 km (one mile) power cable was connected to the outside of the mangled plant in a desperate attempt to re-start water pumps that would cool overheating nuclear fuel rods and prevent a deadly radiation leak.
Four of the worst-hit reactors in the complex should have electricity by Sunday, Japan's nuclear safety agency said, a potentially crucial milestone in the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years.
Restoring the plant's cooling system might help to allay anxiety in Tokyo, about 240 km (150 miles) to south where tens of thousands of tourists, expatriates and residents have either left or stayed indoors, despite radiation readings well within the average and winds blowing from the plant off to sea.
Engineers fixed the power cable to the No. 2 reactor but have yet to turn on its coolers, and they plan to test power in reactors No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 Sunday, Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general at the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told a news conference.
""This is an absolutely necessary step,"" he said. ""To return the situation to normal we need power to bring the temperature down with normal methods.""
Restarting the coolers would be ""a significant step forward in establishing stability,"" added Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at U.S.-based FocalPoint Consulting Group.
Working inside a 20-km (12-mile) evacuation zone at Fukushima, nearly 300 engineers restarted a second diesel generator for reactor No. 6, the nuclear safety agency added. They used the power to restart cooling pumps on No. 5.
Public apology
Thousands living outside that danger zone but within a 30 km (18 miles) radius face dwindling supplies of heating fuel, food and water, heeding a government request to stay indoors and close all windows, doors and vents.
The UN nuclear watchdog says radiation levels outside the plant are safe. It said Japanese authorities have urged people in the area to ingest iodine, which can be used to help protect against thyroid cancer in the event of radioactive exposure.
The operator of the 40-year-old plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co, is facing mounting criticism in Japan, including questions over whether it hesitated too long before dousing the reactors with seawater, which permanently damages them.
Saturday, its president issued a public apology for ""causing such great concern and nuisance.""
Plant officials say a last resort, if all else fails, would be to bury the sprawling old plant in sand and concrete to prevent a catastrophic radiation release. The method was used at the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, scene of the world's worst nuclear reactor disaster.
Underlining their desperation, fire trucks sprayed water through much of Saturday, a day after Japan raised the severity rating of the nuclear crisis to level 5 from 4 on the seven-level INES international scale, putting it on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979.
Some experts say it is more serious. Chernobyl, in Ukraine, was a 7 on that scale.
Humanitarian effort
The operation to avert large-scale radiation has largely overshadowed the humanitarian crisis caused by the 9.0-magnitude quake and 10-meter (33-foot) tsunami.
Some 390,000 people, many elderly, are homeless, living in shelters in near-freezing temperatures in northeastern coastal areas. Food, water, medicine and heating fuel are in short supply and a Worm Moon, when the full moon is closest to Earth, could bring floods to devastated areas.
""Everything is gone, including money,"" said Tsukasa Sato, a 74-year-old barber with a heart condition, as he warmed his hands in front of a stove at a shelter for the homeless.
Health officials and the UN atomic watchdog have said radiation levels in the capital Tokyo were not harmful. But the city has seen an exodus of tourists, expatriates and many Japanese, who fear a blast of radioactive material.
""I'm leaving because my parents are terrified. I personally think this will turn out to be the biggest paper tiger the world has ever seen,"" said Luke Ridley, 23, from London as he sat at Narita international airport using his laptop.
Though there has been alarm around the world, experts say dangerous levels of radiation are unlikely to spread to other nations. The U.S. government said ""minuscule"" amounts of radiation were detected in California consistent with a release from the damaged facility but there were no levels of concern.
But the immediate problems remained huge for many people. Nearly 290,000 households in the north still have no electricity and about 940,000 lack running water.
Aid groups say most victims are getting help, but there are pockets of acute suffering.
""We've seen children suffering with the cold, and lacking really basic items like food and clean water,"" Stephen McDonald of Save the Children said in a statement.
At least 7,348 people were confirmed dead, exceeding 6,434 who died after the Kobe earthquake in 1995. But 10,947 people are still missing, National Police Agency of Japan said on Saturday.