Mon, Mar 14, 2011 - Page 1 News List

Japan races to avert nuclear meltdowns

CAUSE FOR CONCERN:One expert described the use of sea water in an attempt to cool a reactor’s uranium fuel rods as a desperate measure, akin to a ‘Hail Mary pass’

AP, KORIYAMA, JAPAN

Officials in protective gear check for signs of radiation yesterday on children in Koriyama, Japan.

Photo: Reuters

Japan’s nuclear crisis intensified yesterday as authorities raced to combat the threat of multiple reactor meltdowns and more than 170,000 people evacuated the quake and tsunami-savaged northeastern coast where fears spread over possible radioactive contamination.

Nuclear plant operators were frantically trying to keep temperatures down in a series of nuclear reactors — including one where officials feared a partial meltdown could be happening yesterday — to prevent the situation from deteriorating.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said yesterday that a hydrogen explosion could occur at Unit 3 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, the latest reactor to face a possible meltdown.

That follows a blast the day before in the power plant’s Unit 1.

“At the risk of raising further public concern, we cannot rule out the possibility of an explosion,” Edano said. “If there is an explosion, however, there would be no significant impact on human health.”

Edano said the radioactivity released into the environment so far was so small it posed no health threat.

He said none of the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors was near the point of complete meltdown and he was confident of escaping the worst scenarios.

A complete meltdown — the collapse of a power plant’s ability to keep temperatures under control — could release uranium and dangerous contaminants into the environment and pose major, widespread health risks.

WAITING

Up to 160 people, including 60 elderly patients and medical staff who had been waiting for evacuation in the nearby town of Futabe, and 100 others evacuating by bus, might have been exposed to radiation, said Ryo Miyake, a spokesman from Japan’s nuclear agency.

The severity of their exposure, or if it had reached dangerous levels, was not clear. They were being taken to hospitals.

Edano said operators were trying to cool and decrease the pressure in the Unit 3 reactor, just as they had the day before at Unit 1.

Japan struggled with the nuclear crisis as it tried to determine the scale of the Friday disasters, when the most powerful quake in the country’s recorded history was followed by a tsunami.

More than 1,400 people were killed and hundreds more were missing, according to officials, but police in one of the worst-hit areas estimated the toll there alone could eventually top 10,000.

The scale of the disasters seemed to be outpacing the efforts of Japanese authorities to bring the situation under control.

Rescue teams were struggling to search hundreds of kilometers of devastated coastline and hundreds of thousands of hungry survivors huddled in darkened emergency centers cut off from rescuers and aid. At least 1.4 million households had gone without water since the quake, and food and gasoline were quickly running out across the region. Large areas of the countryside were surrounded by water and unreachable. About 2 million households were without electricity.

POWER OUTAGE

Unit 3 at the Fukushima plant is one of three reactors there that had automatically shut down and lost cooling functions necessary to keep fuel rods working properly because of a power outage from the quake. The facility’s Unit 1 is also in trouble, but Unit 2 is less affected.

On Saturday, an explosion destroyed the walls of Unit 1 as operators tried to prevent it from overheating and melting down.

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