Sat, Mar 19, 2011 - Page 1 News List

Japan mulls burying nuclear plant

HELL OF A WEEK:Officials yesterday raised the incident level at Japan’s crippled nuclear plant to five on the INES scale, which ranks nuclear accidents on a one to seven scale

Reuters, TOKYO

Soldiers observe a minute of silence in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, yesterday. Japan is battling a nuclear and humanitarian crisis as engineers work to restore power to a stricken atomic plant, while the toll of dead and missing from the quake and tsunami topped 16,000.

Photo: AFP

Japanese engineers said yesterday that burying a crippled nuclear plant in sand and concrete may be a last resort to prevent a catastrophic radiation release. The same method was used to seal huge leakages from Chernobyl in 1986.

However, they still hoped to solve the crisis by fixing a power cable to two reactors by today to restart water pumps needed to cool overheating nuclear fuel rods. Workers also sprayed water on the No. 3 reactor, the most critical of the plant’s six reactors.

It was the first time the facility operator had acknowledged burying the sprawling complex was possible, a sign that piecemeal actions such as dumping water from military helicopters or scrambling to restart cooling pumps may not work.

“It is not impossible to encase the reactors in concrete, but our priority right now is to try and cool them down first,” an official from the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, told a news conference.

As Japan entered its second week after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 10m tsunami flattened coastal cities and killed thousands of people, the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl looked far from over.

The nuclear disaster has triggered global alarm and reviews of safety at atomic power plants around the world.

“This is something that will take some time to work through, possibly weeks, as you eventually remove the majority of the heat from the reactors and then the spent-fuel pools,” US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko told a news conference at the White House.

Millions of people in Tokyo continued to work from home, some fearing a blast of radioactive material from the complex 240km to the north, although the International Atomic Energy Agency said radiation levels in the capital were not harmful.

That is little solace for about 300 nuclear plant workers toiling in the radioactive wreckage. They are wearing masks, goggles and protective suits, the seams of which are sealed off with duct tape to prevent radioactive particles from creeping in.

“My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing,” Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said.

Even if engineers restore power at the plant, the pumps may be too damaged from the earthquake, tsunami or subsequent explosions to work. The first step is to restore electricity to pumps for reactors No. 1 and No. 2 by today.

By tomorrow, the government expects cooling pumps for badly damaged reactors No. 3 and No. 4 to have power, Japan’s nuclear agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said.

Asked about 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.”

Some experts said dumping water from helicopters to try to cool spent-fuel pools would have little impact.

“One can put out forest fires like this — by pouring water from far above, said Russian nuclear expert Gennady Pshakin. “It is not clear where this water is falling. There is no control.”

Japan raised the incident level at the crippled plant to five on a scale called INES to rank nuclear accidents, up from four, on a one to seven scale.

That puts it on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979, although some experts say it is more serious. Chernobyl was a seven on the INES scale.

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