Reactor repairs stall work to avert meltdown

Trace levels of radiation in water, over US

Buses took residents through their devastated suburb in Miyagi Prefecture yesterday. The death toll rose to more than 8,600. Buses took residents through their devastated suburb in Miyagi Prefecture yesterday. The death toll rose to more than 8,600. (Mark Baker/ Associated Press)
By Ken Belson and Hiroko Tabuchi
New York Times / March 22, 2011

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TOKYO — Efforts to stabilize the crippled nuclear power plant in Fukushima stalled yesterday when engineers found that crucial machinery at one reactor required repair, a process that will take two to three days, government officials said.

A team of workers trying to repair another reactor, No. 3, was evacuated in the afternoon after gray smoke rose from it, said Tetsuro Fukuyama, the deputy chief Cabinet secretary of the Japanese government. But no explosion was heard and the emission ended by 6 p.m., said NHK, the national broadcaster.

Separately, NHK cited the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency as saying white smoke was coming from the building housing Reactor No. 2, where repairs to machinery were needed. Fukuyama said significantly higher radiation had not been detected around the two reactors.

An official at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said yesterday that reactors No. 1 and No. 2 were both too damaged for cooling systems to restart immediately, even when electricity was restored. William Borchardt also said the situation at the plant appeared to be “on the verge of stabilizing.’’ The NRC is advising the US Embassy, supplying assistance to the Japanese, and gathering information to benefit US reactor safety.

The US State Department, meanwhile, said it would offer potassium iodide to its staff members and dependents in the Tokyo region and to the north on Honshu, Japan’s main island and the site of the troubled power station, as a precaution against a possible radiation release.

In a travel warning posted online, the State Department advised against taking the chemical compound “at this time’’ and urged consultation with the US government before consuming it.

Potassium iodide can help prevent thyroid cancer by reducing the chance that radioactive iodine will be absorbed by the thyroid gland.

Harmless traces of radiation from the stricken nuclear complex have been detected wafting over the East Coast of the United States, European officials said yesterday.

Since last week, the officials have tracked the radioactive plume as it has drifted eastward on prevailing winds from Japan — first to the West Coast and now over the East Coast and the Atlantic, moving toward Europe.

Health specialists said that the plume’s radiation had been diluted enormously in its journey of thousands of miles and that — at least for now, with concentrations so low — its presence will have no health consequences in the United States.

Hundreds of employees from the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the disabled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, worked through the weekend to connect a mile-long high-voltage transmission line to the No. 2 unit in hopes of restarting a cooling system that would help bring down the temperature in the reactor and spent fuel pool.

After connecting the transmission line Sunday, engineers found yesterday that they still did not have enough power to fully run the systems that control the temperature and pressure in the building housing the reactor, officials from the Japanese nuclear safety agency said.

Engineers were also trying to repair the ventilation system in the control room that is used to monitor conditions in the No. 1 and No. 2 units. When that work is completed, the power company can begin cleansing the air in the control room so workers can reenter and begin using equipment inside to monitor conditions in the two reactor units.

Workers at the plant were also trying to connect a separate power cable to Reactor No. 4.

Firefighters from Tokyo doused Reactor No. 3 overnight, and firetrucks from the Japan Self-Defense Forces and the US Army spent two hours yesterday spraying water on Reactor No. 4. There are six reactors at the plant; Numbers 4, 5, and 6 were offline when the earthquake and tsunami hit, but there are spent fuel rods atop them and the other three.

The Japanese nuclear safety agency said some of the water used to douse the damaged reactors had reached the ocean nearby, and that officials were investigating radiation levels in the water. Trace amounts of radioactive material were reported to have been found on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

Separately, residents of Iitate, a village about 30 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, were ordered not to drink tap water after high levels of radioactive elements were detected in the water supply, said Takashi Hashiguchi, a Health Ministry official.

The order came a day after the government barred all shipments of milk from Fukushima Prefecture and shipments of spinach from Ibaraki Prefecture after finding new cases of above-normal levels of radioactive elements in milk and several crops.

Rescue teams yesterday were still searching through communities ravaged by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck the country’s northeast coast March 11.

NHK said the official death toll had been raised to more than 8,600. The final toll is expected to reach nearly 20,000. On Sunday, police officials in Miyagi, the prefecture hit hardest by the tsunami, said they expected the toll there alone to exceed 15,000. More than 13,000 people are listed as missing. More than 450,000 are in shelters.

The World Bank, citing private and Japanese government estimates, said that the cost of the disaster could approach $235 billion, or 4 percent of gross domestic product, and that it would hurt Japan’s growth through 2011.

In Vienna, Yukiya Amano, head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, said that “the agency’s role in nuclear safety may need to be reexamined, along with the role of our safety standards.’’ top stories on Twitter

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