Japanese Engineers Aim to Restore Power to Avert Catastrophe

Japanese engineers raced on Friday to restore a power cable to a crippled nuclear power plant in the hope of restarting pumps desperately needed to pour cold water on overheating fuel rods and avert a catastrophic release of radiation.

Officials could not forecast when the cable might be connected, but said work would stop on Friday morning to allow helicopters and fire trucks to resume pouring water on the Daiichi plant, about 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

“Preparatory work has so far not progressed as fast as we had hoped,” an official of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) told a news briefing, adding that a cold snap was hampering the effort, as was the need to constantly check radiation levels were safe for the engineers to work. (Reuters)

Washington and other foreign capitals have expressed growing alarm about radiation leaking from the plant, severely damaged by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami a week ago that triggered a series of destructive explosions, which compromised the nuclear reactors and spent fuel storage tanks.

Worst case scenarios would involve millions of people in Japan threatened by exposure to radioactive material, but prevailing winds are likely to carry any contaminated smoke or steam away from the densely populated Tokyo area to dissipate over the Pacific ocean.

President Barack Obama, however, said the Japan crisis posed no risk to any U.S. territory – although he nevertheless ordered a comprehensive review of domestic nuclear plants. “We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it’s the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska, or U.S. territories in the Pacific,” Obama said. “That is the judgment of our Nuclear Regulatory Commission and many other experts.” (Reuters)

Obama also made an unannounced visit to the Japanese Embassy and signed a condolence book. “My heart goes out to the people of Japan during this enormous tragedy. Please know that America will always stand by one of its greatest allies during this time of need,” Obama wrote. “Because of the strength and wisdom of its people, we know that Japan will recover, and indeed will emerge stronger than ever. And as it recovers, the memory of those who have been lost will remain in our hearts, and will serve only to strengthen the relationship between our two countries. May God bless the people of Japan.” (Washington Post)

Yukiya Amano, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was due back in his homeland later on Friday with an international team of experts after earlier complaining about a lack of information from Japanese authorities on the crisis.

Graham Andrew, his senior aide, said the situation at the plant was serious but “reasonably stable… It hasn’t got worse, which is positive,” he said. “The situation remains very serious but there has been no significant worsening since yesterday.” (Reuters)

“The current situation at units 1, 2 and 3, whose cores have suffered damaged, appears to be relatively stable,” Andrew added. “Unit 4, in particular, remains a major safety concern.” (CNN)

Even if TEPCO manages to connect the power, it is not clear the pumps will work as they may have been damaged by the natural disaster or subsequent explosions. Work has been slowed by the need to frequently monitor radiation levels to protect workers.

Rebecca Johnson, founder of the London-based Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, which promotes international security, disarmament and arms control, told CNN that Japanese engineers were “flying by the seat of their pants now… Everything they try goes wrong. They’re focusing on reactors, then spent fuel becomes damaged,” Johnson said. “They’ve just got to get water in there, keep the water pumping.” (CNN)

And nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson told CNN that the effort will likely need to be sustained “for months, if not years… What’s pushing the firemen back is the radiation that’s coming from the spent fuel pool,” he said. If the spent fuel rods in that pool are uncovered, “There’s an awful lot of gamma rays flooding that site, forcing the workers to stay further away.” (CNN)

U.S. officials took pains not to criticize Japan’s government, but Washington’s actions indicated a divide with its close ally about the perilousness of the world’s worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

The top U.S. nuclear regulator said the cooling pool for spent fuel rods at the complex’s reactor No. 4 may have run dry and another was leaking. Gregory Jaczko, head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told a congressional hearing that radiation levels around the cooling pool were extremely high, posing deadly risks for workers still toiling in the wreckage of the power plant. “This is something that will likely take some time to work through, possibly weeks, as eventually you remove the majority of the heat from the reactors and then the spent-fuel pools,” Jaczko told reporters at a White House briefing. “So it’s something that will be ongoing for some time.” (Washington Post)

Japan’s nuclear agency said it could not confirm if water was covering the fuel rods. The plant operator said it believed the reactor spent-fuel pool still had water as of Wednesday, and made clear its priority was the spent-fuel pool at the No. 3 reactor.

On Thursday, military helicopters dumped about 30 tons of water, all aimed at this reactor. One emergency crew temporarily put off spraying the same reactor with a water cannon due to high radiation, broadcaster NHK said, but another crew later began hosing it. Latest images from the plant showed severe damage, with two of the buildings a twisted mangle of steel and concrete.

A spokesman for Tokyo Electric said radiation levels showed a very small decrease after the helicopter missions. But, noting the minuscule drop in radiation readings, the World Nuclear Association said the water drops by helicopter “did not appear accurate enough to be effective,” adding that “the effect at present seems marginal at best.” (Washington Post) The London-based organization, which promotes nuclear energy, said one attempt was made to douse the unit 4 reactor building but that the pilots withdrew “after encountering high levels of radiation.” (Washington Post)

“The worst-case scenario doesn’t bear mentioning and the best-case scenario keeps getting worse,” Perpetual Investments said in a note on the crisis. (Reuters)

General Electric said it would sent about 10 gas turbine generators to Japan to help replace lost power generating capacity. Michael Tetuan, a spokesman for the company, said that the operators of the damaged plant had requested generators, but he did not know what they would be used for. The units can produce roughly the same amount of power as the diesel generators at nuclear plants.

Financial leaders of the world’s richest nations will hold talks on Friday on ways to calm global markets roiled by the crisis amid concern it will unravel a fragile global economic recovery. Japanese Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano told Reuters the country’s markets were not unstable enough to warrant joint G7 currency intervention or government purchases of shares. That said, the yen surged to a record high against the dollar on market speculation Japan would repatriate funds to pay for the massive cost of post-disaster reconstruction, rising as high as 76.25 to the dollar and surpassing the previous record high of 79.75 reached in the wake of the Kobe earthquake of 1995.

Japan’s Nikkei average fell sharply on opening on Thursday, but ended the day down just 1.44 percent. The Nikkei has fallen more than 12 percent this week.

U.S. markets, which tanked on Wednesday on the back of the crisis, rebounded on Thursday, but investors were not convinced the advance would last.

The government warned Tokyo’s 13 million people to prepare for a possible large-scale blackout but later said there was no need for one. Still, many firms voluntarily reduced power, submerging parts of the usually neon-lit city in darkness. In a possible sign of panic, one bank, Mizuho, said all its automated teller machines in the country crashed twice on Thursday after excessive transactions.

On Thursday, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo urged citizens living within 80 km (50 miles) of the Daiichi plant to evacuate or remain indoors “as a precaution,” while Britain’s foreign office urged citizens “to consider leaving the area.” (Reuters)

The latest warnings were not as strong as those issued earlier by France and Australia, which urged nationals in Japan to leave the country. Russia said it planned to evacuate families of diplomats on Friday, and Hong Kong urged its citizens to leave Tokyo as soon as possible or head south. Japan’s government told everyone living within 20 km (12 miles) of the plant to evacuate, and advised people within 30 km (18 miles) to stay indoors.

At worst, radiation in Tokyo has reached 0.809 microsieverts per hour this week, 10 times below what a person would receive if exposed to a dental x-ray. On Thursday, radiation levels were barely above average.

Many Tokyo residents stayed indoors, however, usually busy streets were nearly deserted and many shops were closed. At the second-floor office of the Tokyo Passport Center in the city’s Yurakucho district, queues snaked to the first floor. “Since yesterday we have had one-and-a-half times more people than usually coming to apply for a passport or to enquire about getting one,” said Shigeaki Ohashi, a center official. (Reuters)

The plight of hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake and tsunami worsened following a cold snap that brought heavy snow to worst-affected areas. Supplies of water and heating oil are low at evacuation centers, where many survivors wait bundled in blankets.

A city partially within the 20-kilometer evacuation zone, Minami Soma, was preparing to move 30,000 people out of the prefecture. Shelters within the prefecture were already full. Thousands of people have poured out of the area surrounding the plant. “About 600 people, many of whom lived in the immediate vicinity of the reactors, made their way here,” CBC’s Curt Petrovich said from an evacuation centre in Niigata, about 170 kilometers west of the Fukushima plant. “They are all over the floor on neatly ordered blankets. There are men, women, children, babies,” he said. “Many people are here with just the clothes on their backs, and many people are afraid of what lies ahead.” (CBC)

About 30,000 households in the north were still without electricity in near-freezing weather, Tohuku Electric Power Co. said, and the government said at least 1.6 million households lacked running water.

The National Police Agency said on Friday it had confirmed 5,692 deaths from the quake and tsunami disaster, while 9,522 people were unaccounted for in six prefectures.

As Japan struggled to avert a nuclear disaster, ripple effects from the crisis spread to other countries in the region. In China, panic-buying swept from the country’s eastern coast all the way to Beijing, with residents rushing to stores to stock up on salt. People apparently believe the iodine in salt will protect them from radiation; others feared that sea salt would become scarce if the East China Sea becomes contaminated because of Japan’s nuclear plant crisis.

In Beijing and elsewhere, several supermarkets also ran out of imported milk powder, soybean sauce and instant noodles, as people stocked up on provisions even as the government issued repeated assurances that there was no radiation threat to China. “I don’t know when I can replenish our stock,” said Chen Zhonghai, manager of Jinli Super Market in Wenzhou City. “The residents worry that the salt produced in the future will be contaminated and can’t be eaten. It’s totally unnecessary.” (Washington Post)

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