Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japan hopes to restore power at two crippled reactors Friday

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese engineers raced to restore a power cable to a quake-ravaged nuclear power plant on Friday in the hope of restarting pumps needed to pour cold water on overheating fuel rods and avert a catastrophic release of radiation.

Officials said they hoped to fix a cable from the grid to at least two of the six reactors on Friday, but that work would stop in the morning to allow helicopters and fire trucks to resume pouring water on the Fukushima Daiichi plant, about 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

Even if the engineers manage to connect the power, it is not clear the pumps will work as they may have been damaged in the earthquake or subsequent explosions and there are real fears of the electricity shorting and causing another explosion.

"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 engineers had to be constantly checked for radiation levels.

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 and 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.

Nuclear agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said the priority was to get water into the spent fuel pools. He was unsure how effective the helicopters had been inn cooling the reactors.

"As to what we do beyond that, we have to reduce the heat somehow and may use seawater," he told a news conference. "We need to get the reactors back online as soon as possible and that's why we're trying to restore power to them."

Asked about the "Chernobyl solution" of burying the reactors in sand and concrete, he said: "That solution is in the back of our minds, but we are focused on cooling the reactors down."

Japan's nuclear disaster is the world's worst since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

U.S. President Barack Obama said the crisis posed no risk to any U.S. territory. 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."

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 Japan.

Graham Andrew, his senior aide, called the situation at the plant "reasonably stable " but the government said white smoke or steam was still rising from three reactors and helicopters used to dump water on the plant had shown exposure to small amounts of radiation.

"The situation remains very serious, but there has been no significant worsening since yesterday," Andrew said.

The nuclear agency said the radiation level at the plant was as high as 20 millisieverts per hour. The limit for the workers was 100 per hour.

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.

He said it could take weeks to successfully cool down the reactors.

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.


The Group of Seven rich nations on Friday agreed to join in rare concerted intervention to restrain a run-away yen, hoping to calm global markets after a wild week of often panic selling.

The U.S. dollar immediately surged almost two yento 81.15 yen, leaving behind a record low of 76.25 hit on Thursday. Japan's Nikkei share index climbed 2.5 percent, recouping some of the week's stinging losses.

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 residents 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.

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".

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 has 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 its 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.

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.

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.

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