By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Japan today put its top priority on efforts to cool down its earthquake- and tsunami-stricken nuclear power plant, attempting at one stage to drop seawater on the facility without success amid fears that options to avert disaster are running out.
Military helicopters carried giant buckets of seawater to drop on the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. It is the only reactor there that is powered with plutonium, which is far more hazardous to health than the uranium powering the other five reactors.
But Japan’s Kyodo News Agency quotes the defense minister as saying that the water drop was called off because radiation levels above the reactor were too high.
Meanwhile, French nuclear safety agencies have voiced deep concern about a tank containing spent nuclear fuel rods at the No. 4 reactor.
The Nuclear Safety Authority said in a statement that “the next 48 hours” were critical for keeping the rods safely cooled. The highly radioactive fuel rods are meant to be immersed in a deep pool of water until they reach a lower and more manageable temperature. But the water has been evaporating even as nuclear engineers struggle to replenish it.
Unlike the fuel rods used in reactors, the spent rods are not surrounded by a steel-and-concrete containment vessel designed to prevent leaks of radioactive gas and particles.
Earlier today, workers were briefly ordered out of the facility when radiation surged to high levels. The evacuation order was lifted an hour later when the level of radiation escaping from the reactor fell, allowing a skeleton crew of workers to return and try to prevent a meltdown.
The evacuation order came as Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, warned that the inner containment shell of reactor No. 3 may be damaged.
“This radiation level at the entrance gate, or main gate, since 10 o’clock this morning [on March 16] has suddenly, dramatically increased and now has reached 1,000 millisieverts, and that is the report I have heard so far,” Edano said. “And following this, we have now requested the workers to evacuate temporarily to safe areas.”
The inner shell is one of three containment structures designed to prevent leakage of radioactive materials from the reactor. Edano said he had no definitive information about the inner shell. But he said radioactive steam may have leaked through cracks in the structure today.
The developments have further raised fears that the nuclear crisis at the complex — about 240 kilometers north of Tokyo — is spiraling out of control.
Rescue workers carry the body of a tsunami victim in the devastated town of Otsuchi.
Since March 15, low levels of radiation have been measured over Tokyo as a result of explosions and fires at the facility that have spewed clouds of radioactive material into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, days after the March 11 twin disasters, millions of people were struggling along Japan’s coast with little food, water, or heat. Freezing temperatures were adding to the misery of up to 450,000 people who are staying in temporary shelters, often sleeping on the floor of school gymnasiums.
More than 11,000 people are officially listed as dead or missing as a result of the deadly quake and tsunami. Most Japanese officials think the final death toll will be well over 10,000 people.
In a rare address to the nation, Japan’s Emperor Akihito expressed condolences for victims of the quake and tsunami, and he urged the country not to give up hope. He called all on Japanese citizens to share the difficulties they will face in the days ahead, saying that he is praying people will all take care of each other and overcome the tragedy.
Akihito also expressed his worries about the nuclear crisis, saying: “With the help of those involved, I hope things will not get worse.”
Nuclear specialists say the solutions being proposed to quell the radiation leaks at Fukushima were last-ditch efforts to prevent what could become one of the world’s worst-ever industrial disasters.
In the first hint of international frustration about information being released by the Japanese government, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) director-general, Yukiya Amano, said he wants Tokyo to provide more timely and detailed reports about what is happening.
Japanese media also have become more critical of the government’s handling of the crisis, criticizing the cabinet and the plant operator for failing to provide enough information about what is happening.
Nuclear specialists also say Japanese authorities appear to be underplaying the severity of the crisis — particularly on a scale called INES that is used to rank nuclear crises. So far, Japan has rated the accident a four on the one-to-seven scale. But that rating was issued on March 12; since then, the situation has worsened dramatically.
France’s nuclear safety authority, the ASN, said before the March 16 release of radioactive material that the accident should be classed as level six out of seven.
Meanwhile, the head of Russia’s state nuclear corporation said today that Japan’s nuclear crisis is developing along the lines of a worst-case scenario. Sergei Kiriyenko told Reuters the crisis was likely to have a negative impact on Russia’s overseas nuclear power construction business.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in Turkey today after talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that their countries would continue to work on plans for Russia to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant despite the Japanese nuclear accident.
Medvedev said the project in Turkey is different from the stations in Japan in terms of age and the level of protection.
“It can be safe, and it is safe,” he said. “But what is necessary is the right choice of the location for the nuclear-power plant, of the project that is going to be implemented, and of its operator. With these conditions met, nuclear power is safe and more and more beneficial for mankind.”
Foreign governments today have been advising citizens not to travel to Japan and telling their nationals still in the country to either leave Japan or travel further south.