Quake Ravaged Japan Battles Against a Nuclear Meltdown

INTRODUCTION

Japanese engineers raced to prevent a meltdown at a stricken nuclear plant on Tuesday, as rescuers scrambled to help millions left without food, water or heating by a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

A second explosion rocked the Fukushima nuclear complex on Monday and rapidly failing water levels exposed fuel rods in another reactor, but the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog said the crisis was unlikely to turn into another Chernobyl.

Rescue workers combed the tsunami-battered region north of Tokyo, where officials say at least 10,000 people were killed in the 8.9-magnitude earthquake and the tsunami that followed it. “It’s a scene from hell, absolutely nightmarish,” said Patrick Fuller of the International Red Cross Federation from the northeastern coastal town of Ostuchi. (Reuters)

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has dubbed the multiple disasters as Japan’s worst crisis since World War Two and, with the financial costs estimated at up to $180 billion, analysts said it could tip the world’s third biggest economy back into recession. Japanese stocks closed down more than 7.5 percent, wiping $287 billion off market capitalization in the biggest fall since the height of the global financial crisis in 2008. Insurers’ shares fell for a second day in London and New York.

NUCLEAR DISASTER FEARS

The big fear at the Fukushima complex, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, is of a major radiation leak. The complex has seen explosions at two of its reactors Saturday and Monday, which sent a huge plume of smoke billowing above the plant.

The worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 has drawn criticism that authorities were ill-prepared and revived debate in many countries about the safety of atomic power.

Switzerland put on hold some approvals for nuclear power plants and Germany said it was scrapping a plan to extend the life of its nuclear power stations. The White House said U.S. President Barack Obama remained committed to nuclear energy.

Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the reactor vessels of nuclear power plants affected by the disaster remained intact and, so far, the amount of radiation that had been released was limited. “The Japanese authorities are working as hard as they can, under extremely difficult circumstances, to stabilize the nuclear power plants and ensure safety,” Amano said in a statement, adding at a news conference later that it was “unlikely that the accident would develop” like Chernobyl. (Reuters) An explosion at the Soviet Chernobyl plant sent radioactive fallout in swathe across northern Europe.

The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), said fuel rods at the No. 2 reactor were fully exposed. This could lead to the rods melting down. The rods, normally surrounded by cooling water, were partially exposed earlier after the engine-powered pump pouring in this water ran out of fuel. TEPCO said it was preparing to pump more cooling water on the rods.

There were earlier partial meltdowns of the fuel rods at both the No. 1 and the No. 3 reactors, where the explosions had occurred. “Clearly the situation still remains serious as it was at Unit 1 on Saturday and Unit 3 on Sunday,” McMaster University nuclear safety expert John Luxat told CBC News. “The hydrogen explosion is an indication at these other two reactors that some fuel was exposed to become uncovered by water, heated up, and as a result of that [produced] hydrogen gas. The issue with the third reactor will be how long the fuel remains exposed, how hot it gets, and how much hydrogen is generated.” (CBC)

A TEPCO official said the situation in the No. 2 reactor was even worse than in the other units.

A meltdown raises the risk of damage to the reactor vessel and a possible radioactive leak. “If cooling water is not returned, the core should melt in a matter of hours,” said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist for global security programs at the Union of Concerned Scientists which lobbies for stronger security and safety measures at nuclear plants. Crucially, officials said the thick walls around the radioactive cores of the damaged reactors appeared to be intact after the earlier hydrogen blast.

But the government warned those still in the 20-km (13-mile) explosion zone to stay indoors. TEPCO said 11 people had been injured in the blast.

“This is nothing like a Chernobyl,” said Murray Jennex, a nuclear expert at San Diego State University. “At Chernobyl you had no containment structure – when it blew, it blew everything straight out into the atmosphere.” (Reuters)

Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency official Ryohei Shiomi said reactors 1 and 3 had “somewhat stabilized” but “unit 2 now requires all our effort.” (BBC)

Chief Cabinet Secretary Ukio Edano said there were signs that the fuel rods were melting in all three reactors at Fukushima Dalichi. “Although we cannot directly check it, it’s highly likely happening,” he told reporters. However, he said radiation around the plant remained at tolerable levels. (BBC)

OTHER COUNTRIES’ RESPONSES

Japanese officials are using all available resources to monitor the situation, the country’s ambassador to Canada said Monday. “We are in close contact with not only American experts but also and especially with [the International Atomic Energy Association]… so that everybody knows what’s going on,” Kaoru Ishikawa told CBC News Network. “We are using the wisdom of all available engineers.” (CBC)

Nonetheless, U.S. warships and planes helping with relief efforts moved away from the coast temporarily because of low-level radiation. The U.S. Seventh Fleet described the move as precautionary.

South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines said they would test Japanese food imports for radiation. France’s ASN nuclear safety authority said the accident could be classified as a level 5 or 6 on the international scale of 1 to 7, putting it on par with the 1979 U.S. Three Mile Island meltdown, higher than the Japanese authorities’ rating. Japan’s nuclear safety agency has rated the incidents in the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors as a 4, but has not yet rated the No. 2 reactor.

But the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) cast doubt on Japan’s classification of the crisis at Fukushima as level 4 of 7 on the scale. Chernobyl was classified as level 7. “Level four is a serious level,” ASN chief Andre-Claude Lacoste said, but added: “We feel that we are at least at level five or even at level six.” (BBC)

Mark Hibbs, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program based in Berlin, spoke with the CBC’s Suhana Meherchand. “The situation so far, according to the Japanese authorities, is that the reactor vessel where the fuel rods is, is intact,” he said. “That’s very good news.” The concern, he said, is that because the site has been buffeted by both an earthquake and a tsunami, the precise extent of the damage to the containment vessels isn’t known. “They are confident after looking at it that they haven’t seen any damage,” he said. “But there are some uncertainties, because unlike the reactor in the United States at Three Mile Island, which experienced a similar incident in 1979, here in this case, this reactor was buffeted first by an earthquake and then a tsunami, and no one can be absolutely sure that the structure in those reactor buildings are perfectly sound.” (CBC) “We are now into the fourth day,” Hibbs continued. “Whatever is happening in that core is taking a long time to unfold. They’ve succeeded in prolonging the timeline of the accident sequence.” (The Star) He noted, though, that Japanese appeared unable to figure out what was going on deep inside the reactor. In part, that was probably because of the damage done to the facility by the tsunami. “The real question mark is what’s going on inside the core,” he said. (The Star)

EARTHQUAKE/TSUNAMI DAMAGE

Around 850,000 households in the north were still without electricity in near-freezing weather, Tohuku Electric Power Co. said, and the government said at least 1.5 million households lack running water. Tens of thousands of people were missing.

“The situation here is just beyond belief, almost everything has been flattened,” said the Red Cross’s Fuller in Ostuchi, a town all but obliterated. “The government is saying that 9,500 people, more than half of the population, could have died and I do fear the worst.” (Reuters)

Kyoto news agency reported that 2,000 bodies had been found Monday in two coastal towns alone.

Whole villages and towns have been wiped off the map by Friday’s wall of water, triggering an international humanitarian effort of epic proportions.

“When the tsunami struck, I was trying to evacuate people. I looked back, and then it was like the computer graphics scene I’ve seen from the movie Armageddon. I thought it was a dream. It was really like the end of the world,” said Tsotomu Sato, 46, in Rikuzantakata, a town on the northeast coast. (Reuters)

In Tokyo, commuter trains shut down and trucks were unable to make deliveries as supermarket shelves ran empty. Tokyo is still experiencing regular aftershocks, amid warnings that another powerful earthquake is likely to strike very soon.

A 6.2-magnitude tremor on Monday triggered a new tsunami scare on the Pacific coast, with the authorities telling people to flee to higher ground.

Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, one of the three hardest hit, said it had received so far only 10% of the food and other supplies they had requested from the central government. “People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming,” he told reporters at The Associated Press.

People in the port town of Soma had rushed to higher ground after a tsunami warning Monday – a warning that turned out to be a false alarm – and then felt the earth shake from the explosion at the Fukushima reactor 25 miles (40 kilometres) away. Authorities there ordered everyone to go indoors and guard against possible radiation contamination.

“It’s like a horror movie,” said 49-year-old Kyoko Nambu as she stood on a hillside overlooking her ruined hometown. “Our house is gone and now they are telling us to stay indoors. We can see the damage to our houses, but radiation?… We have no idea what is happening. I am so scared.” (The Star)

Youka Ishi, who works at a town office two miles from the Miyagi Prefecture coast, said that roughly 2,700 buildings closer to the water “have been swallowed by the wave and there is nothing left… I know, through my work as a welfare worker, about 40 or 50 elderly people in that area,” Ishi said. “Not one of them I have been able to contact, or even see just the face of.” (Washington Post)

In Sendai city, which was hit hard along its coast, between 400 to 500 people stayed Sunday night at a shelter in the undamaged prefectural office. Those who went outside could still see a fire smoldering from somewhere along the coastline. “Everybody seems pretty spent,” said Cameron Peek, a 23-year-old American who teaches English in Sendai city and was staying at the shelter. “We have enough space and food. People have been taking cardboard boxes from convenience stores and making beds. Everybody seems pretty spent.” (Washington Post)

The shelves of the Family Mart convenience store in Kagamiishi, Fukushima Prefecture, were wiped clean, save for alcohol and condiments. At the store, Miki Arai packed what few supplies were available into a cardboard box. Arai had scheduled a vacation from his job as an IT engineer in Tokyo when the earthquake hit two days earlier. He left the city Sunday morning hoping to help in Sendai however he could – a one-man rescue team. He took trains as far north as he could, then rented a motorbike. As he latched the box of supplies to the back of his bike, Arai explained that he had given up on Sendai. “It’s too far, there’s no gas to get back, and it’s easier to reach to evacuated tsunami victims closer to Fukushima,” Arai said. (Washington Post)

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Estimates of the economic impact are only now starting to emerge. Hiromichi Shirakawa, chief economist for Japan at Credit Suisse, said in a note to clients that the economic loss will likely be around 14-15 trillion yen ($171-183 billion) just to the region hit by the quake and tsunami. Even that would put it above the commonly accepted cost of the 1995 Kobe quake which killed 6,000 people.

The earthquake has forced many firms to suspend production and shares in some of Japan’s biggest companies tumbled on Monday, with Toyota Corp dropping almost 8 percent. Shares in Australian-listed uranium miners also dived.

Global companies from semiconductor makers to shipbuilders faced disruptions to operations after the quake and tsunami destroyed vital infrastructure, damaged ports and knocked out factories supplying everything from high-tech components to steel.The Bank of Japan offered a combined 15 trillion yen ($183 billion) to the banking system earlier in the day to soothe market jitters.

EARTHQUAKES IN JAPAN’S HISTORY

The earthquake was the fifth most powerful to hit the world in the past century. It surpassed the Great Kanto quake of September 1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area.

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