Workers at Japan reactors leave as radiation spikes

Risk of meltdown still unclear after fire and repeat explosions

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By Eric Talmadge and Shino Yuasa
Associated Press / March 16, 2011

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FUKUSHIMA, Japan — Japan suspended operations to prevent a stricken nuclear plant from melting down today after a surge in radiation made it too dangerous for workers to remain at the facility.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said work on dousing reactors with water at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was disrupted by the need to withdraw.

“The workers cannot carry out even minimal work at the plant now,’’ Edano said. “Because of the radiation risk we are on standby.’’

Officials had said they would use helicopters and firetrucks to spray water in a desperate effort to prevent further radiation leaks and to cool down the reactors.

The nuclear crisis has triggered international alarm and partly overshadowed the human tragedy caused by Friday’s double disaster, which pulverized Japan’s northeastern coastline, killing an estimated 10,000 people.

Authorities have tried frantically since the earthquake and tsunami to avert an environmental catastrophe at the Daiichi complex, 170 miles north of Tokyo.

The government has ordered some 140,000 people within 18 miles of the plant to stay indoors. A little radiation was also detected in Tokyo and triggered panic buying of food and water.

There are six reactors at the Daiichi plant. Three that were operating at the time of the disaster have been rocked by explosions. Reactor 4, the one still burning today, was offline at the time of the magnitude 9.0 quake, Japan’s most powerful on record.

The Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency estimated that 70 percent of the rods have been damaged at Reactor 1.

Japan’s national news agency, Kyodo, said that 33 percent of the fuel rods at Reactor 2 were damaged, and that the cores of both reactors were believed to have melted partially.

“We don’t know the nature of the damage,’’ said Minoru Ohgoda, spokesman for the country’s Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency. “It could be either melting, or there might be some holes in them.’’

The outer housing of the containment vessel at Reactor 4 erupted in flames early today, said Hajimi Motujuku, a spokesman for the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Japan’s nuclear safety agency said fire and smoke could no longer be seen at Unit 4, but that it was unable to confirm that the blaze had been put out.

One US nuclear scientist said he feared the worst.

“It’s more of a surrender,’’ said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who now heads the nuclear safety program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an activist group. “It’s not like you wait 10 days and the radiation goes away. In that 10 days things are going to get worse.’’

“It’s basically a sign that there’s nothing left to do but throw in the towel,’’ Lochbaum said.

Worries about radiation rippled through Tokyo and other areas far beyond the 18-mile Fukushima cordon. The stock market plunged for a second day, dropping 10 percent, though at its opening today, the Nikkei rebounded 6 percent.

Anxiety over the reactors prolongs the agony for the Japanese as they try to recover from last week’s earthquake and tsunami. The confirmed death toll was 3,373 yesterday, with 7,558 people reported missing, but those numbers were thought to be understated, and bodies continued to wash ashore.

A brief ray of hope pierced the gloom yesterday when two people were rescued from collapsed buildings where they had been trapped for four days. One was a 92-year-old man found alive in Ishinomaki City, the other a 70-year-old woman pulled from the wreckage of her home in Iwate Prefecture.

In northern Japan’s disaster zone, an estimated 440,000 people were living in makeshift shelters or evacuation centers, officials said. Bitterly cold and windy weather compounded the misery.

Rescue teams from 13 nations, some assisted by dogs, continued to search for survivors, and more nations were preparing to send teams. Helicopters shuttled back and forth, part of a mobilization of some 100,000 troops, the largest in Japan since World War II, to assist in the rescue and relief work.

Japan’s neighbors watched the crisis anxiously, with urgent meetings about how to respond should radioactive fallout reach their shores.

At the Daiichi plant, the troubles cascaded yesterday. An explosion at Reactor 2 blasted a 26-foot hole in the building and, officials said, damaged a vessel below the reactor, although not the reactor core. Three hours later, a fire broke out at a reactor that had been offline for maintenance.

In a nationally televised address yesterday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said radiation had seeped from four of the plant’s six reactors. The International Atomic Energy Agency said Japanese officials informed it that the fire was in a pool where used nuclear fuel rods are stored and that “radioactivity is being released directly into the atmosphere.’’ Long after the fire was extinguished, a Japanese official said the pool might still be boiling.

Depending on how serious the blast was at Reactor 2, officials said, more radioactive materials could seep out. If the water in the storage pond in Unit 4 boils away again, the fuel rods could be exposed, leaking more radiation.

Scientists noted that much of the leaking radiation was apparently in steam from boiling water, which lessens the levels of radioactivity.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano said the radiation leak potentially affected public health. But authorities and specialists said the risks to the public diminished the farther the distance from the plant. At its most intense, the leak released a radioactive dose in one hour at the site 400 times the amount a person normally receives in a year. Within six hours, that level had dropped dramatically.

A person would have to be exposed to that dose for 10 hours for it to be fatal. Radiation elsewhere never reached that level. In Tokyo, authorities reported radiation levels nine times the normal level — too small, officials said, to threaten the 39 million people in and around the capital.

“It’s not good, but I don’t think it’s a disaster,’’ said Steve Crossley, an Australia-based radiation physicist. “If the radioactive material gets out, it’s a major problem. That doesn’t appear to be happening in Japan.’’

The International Atomic Energy Agency said all other Japanese nuclear plants were in a safe and stable condition.

Though Kan and other officials urged calm, developments in the past two days fueled panic around the world amid uncertainty over a worst-case scenario reactor-core meltdown.

Foreigners began leaving in larger numbers. China organized an evacuation of its citizens from Japan’s northeast. The United States urged Americans to avoid travel to Japan.

Material from The New York Times was used in this report. top stories on Twitter

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