Japan begins air drop on stricken reactor
ZAO, Japan – Japanese military helicopters dumped loads of seawater onto a stricken nuclear complex Thursday, trying to cool dangerously overheated uranium fuel rods that may be on the verge of spewing more radiation into the atmosphere.
The extraordinary, combat-style tactics came as plant operators said they were racing to finish a new power line that could restore cooling systems and ease the crisis. Still, U.S. officials warned all Americans living within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant to leave the area or at least remain indoors.
The Japanese government said it had no plans to expand its 20-kilometer (13-mile) evacuation zone around the complex.
The crisis at the nuclear complex was set off when last week’s earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and destroyed backup generators needed for the reactors’ cooling systems, adding a major nuclear crisis for Japan as it struggled with twin natural disasters that killed more than 10,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
A Japanese military CH-47 Chinook helicopter began dumping seawater on the complex’s damaged Unit 3 at 9:48 a.m. (0048 GMT, 8:48 p.m. EDT), said defense ministry spokeswoman Kazumi Toyama. The chopper dumped at least four loads on the reactor, though television footage showed much of it appearing to disperse in the wind.
At least a dozen more loads were planned in the 40 minutes each crew can work to limit their radiation exposure, the ministry said.
The water drops were aimed at cooling the Unit 3 reactor, as well as replenishing water in that unit’s cooling pool, where used fuel rods are stored, Toyama said. The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said earlier that the pool was nearly empty, which would cause the rods to overheat and emit even more radiation.
Defense Minister Toshifumi Kitazawa told reporters that emergency workers had no choice but to try the water dumps before it was too late.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, said Unit 4 also was seriously at risk.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said at a congressional hearing in Washington that all the water was gone from that unit’s spent fuel pool. Japanese officials expressed similar worries about pool, but with much of the monitoring equipment in the plant inoperable it was impossible to be sure of the situation.
“We haven’t been able to get any of the latest data at any spent fuel pools. We don’t have latest water levels, temperatures, none of the latest information,” Masahisa Otsuki, a Tokyo Electric Power Co. official said Wednesday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said that along with the helicopter water drops, special police units would use water cannons – normally used to quell rioters – to spray water onto the Unit 4 storage pool. The high-pressure water cannons will allow emergency workers to stay farther away.
“We are trying to combine these two approaches to maximize the effect of this water spraying,” Edano said.
Emergency workers were forced to temporarily retreat from the plant Wednesday when radiation levels soared, losing precious time. While the levels later dropped, they were still too high to let workers get close.
Hikaru Kuroda, facilities management official at Tokyo Electric, which owns and runs the complex, said water levels at the cooling pool in Unit 4 also were a major concern.
“Because we cannot get near it, the only way to monitor the situation is visually from far away,” Kuroda said.
The storage pools need a constant source of cooling water. Even when removed from reactors, the uranium rods are still extremely hot and must be cooled for months, possibly longer, to prevent them from heating up again and emitting radioactivity.
A core team of 180 emergency workers have been at the forefront of the struggle at the plant, rotating in and out of the complex to try to reduce their radiation exposure.
But experts said that anyone working close to the reactors was almost certainly being exposed to radiation levels that could, at least, give them much higher cancer risks.
“I don’t know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war,” said Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor of the Department of Radiology at University of Tokyo Hospital.
Experts note, though, that radiation levels drop quickly with distance from the complex. While elevated radiation has been detected well outside the 20-mile (30-kilometer) evacuation zone, experts say those levels are not dangerous.
Japanese officials raised hopes of easing the crisis earlier Thursday, saying that they may be close to bringing power back to the plant and restoring the reactors’ cooling systems.
The new power line would revive electric-powered pumps, making it easier for workers to control the high temperatures that may have led to partial meltdowns in three reactors. The company is also trying to repair its existing disabled power line.
Tokyo Electric Power spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said the new power line to the plant is almost finished and that officials plan to try it “as soon as possible.”
Nearly a week after the disaster, police said more than 452,000 people were staying in schools and other shelters, as supplies of fuel, medicine and other necessities ran short. Both victims and aid workers appealed for more help.
More than 4,300 people are officially listed as dead, but officials believe the toll will climb to well over 10,000.
“There is enough food, but no fuel or gasoline,” said Yuko Niuma, 46, as she stood looking out over Ofunato harbor, where trawlers were flipped on their sides.
The threat of nuclear disaster only added to Japanese misery.
“The anxiety and anger being felt by people in Fukushima have reached a boiling point,” the governor of Fukushima prefecture, Yuhei Sato, fumed in an interview with the Japanese television network NHK. He said evacuation preparations were inadequate, saying centers lacked enough hot meals and basic necessities.
The chief of the U.N. nuclear agency, Yukiya Amano, said he would go to Japan to assess what he called a “very serious” situation and urged Tokyo to provide better information to his organization.
Other countries have complained that Japan has been too slow and vague in releasing details about its rapidly evolving crisis at the complex of six reactors along Japan’s northeastern coast.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writers Elaine Kurtenbach and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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