Workers at a badly damaged nuclear plant in northeastern Japan are continuing their best efforts to avoid a nuclear catastrophe, after a series of new explosions and a fire raised fears that the situation could spiral out of control.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said an explosion Tuesday at the Number 2 reactor at the Fukushima plant may have affected the integrity of a containment structure around the reactor, increasing the risk of more radiation leaking out. Explosions also were reported at two other reactors there.
Dedicated team remains
Most of the workers have been evacuated from the plant, but a small and dedicated team of about 50 remained behind, braving high radiation and dangerous conditions to try to avert a broader disaster.
As part of their efforts, workers have been using seawater as an emergency measure to try to cool fuel rods at the Number 2 reactor. The cooling system was knocked out last week in the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan.
Also Tuesday, the IAEA said a fire broke out at a storage pool for spent fuel rods at the plant’s Number 4 unit, and that radioactivity was released directly into the atmosphere at dose rates equivalent to 4,000 chest X-rays every hour.
The fire has since been put out, but officials say water in the storage pool has reached a boiling point. They say they are considering using helicopters to douse water on the pool from above.
Effective efforts amid deep concerns
Radiation levels around the plant have significantly decreased since the accidents earlier Tuesday, but still remain a concern for parts of Japan.
Officials have urged anyone living within 30 kilometers of the nuclear plant to remain indoors because of the radiation risk. Increased radiation has been detected as far away Tokyo, about 240 kilometers to the south, but officials said levels there are not a threat to public health.
Japanese citizens have been carefully watching weather forecasts for indications of which way the wind is blowing near the Fukushima plant. Forecasts called for winds from the north and northwest Wednesday, which would blow any radiation out to sea.
Meantime, Ukraine, which was home to the world’s worst nuclear accident at the Chernobyl plant in 1986, has offered to send a team of nuclear experts to Japan to provide assistance. Ukraine’s foreign ministry said it has not yet received a reply.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reports the government in Seoul has urged South Korean nationals to heed Japanese warnings and to stay away from the area around the troubled nuclear power plant. A foreign ministry official said about 2,700 Koreans are staying in Fukushima, but it is not clear how many are within 30 kilometers of the plant.
The U.S. Embassy in Japan has issued a similar advisory, urging U.S. citizens to observe all instructions given by Japanese authorities.
China is working to evacuate its citizens from northeastern Japan. A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said radiation levels in China are being closely monitored.
The situation in Japan has prompted several European countries to review their nuclear power programs, with Germany shutting down seven aging reactors for a safety review.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told lawmakers Tuesday that “the American people should have full confidence” that nuclear power in the United States is generated safely and responsibly. He also said the U.S. will send a team of 34 to Japan to help evaluate and monitor conditions at the troubled nuclear plant.