New power line could restore cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi plant
A new power line that could restore the electric cooling systems at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is nearing completion, its operator said Thursday, as international concern mounted over the crisis.
FOR THE RECORD:
Atomic agency official: An earlier version of the article incorrectly spelled the first name of Yukiya Amano, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as Yukio.
The new line to the nuclear complex, 150 miles north of Tokyo, would revive electric-powered pumps, allowing officials to maintain a steady water supply to troubled reactors and spent fuel pools, Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Naoki Tsunoda was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Officials plan to try it “as soon as possible” but he could not say when. The company is also trying to repair its existing power line.
Last week’s earthquake and tsunami knocked out power to the cooling systems, triggering a series of breakdowns and missteps that exposed fuel rods to the air at one reactor and released dangerous levels of radiation outside the plant.
Japan’s government has asked people living within 12 miles of the Fukushima plant to evacuate and those between 12 and 18 miles to stay indoors.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday urged Americans in Japan to move at least 50 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) plant.
The NRC recommendations were based on the status of the reactors, the wind speeds and other local conditions, though NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said the agency did not have onsite readings from the plant. Rather, the projections were based on well-established guidelines that the NRC uses, he said.
A computerized projection provided by the NRC indicates that a wide range of radiation doses can be expected at various distances from the plant, though not necessarily at a dwindling level as a person moved away from the plant.
The projections were based on a nuclear accident at a plant with four reactors, which is how many reactors are believed to be malfunctioning at Fukushima. The NRC projects that at a half mile, a person would receive a dose of 5,400 rem, a massive exposure that would be fatal within days. But even at a distance of 50 miles, the agency projects an exposure of 10 millirem, an amount more than 16 times the average American annual exposure of 0.62 rem.
Britain went even further in a safety warning to its citizens, suggesting that British nationals in Tokyo and to the north consider leaving the area.
“For those outside the exclusion zone set up by the Japanese authorities there is no real human health issue that people should be concerned about,” the British Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “‘However, due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area.”
A series of setbacks Wednesday aggravated public fears that authorities might not be able to contain the expanding nuclear disaster. Yukiya Amano, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he would go to Japan as soon as possible to assess the danger.
Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, said Wednesday that radioactive steam might have escaped from the containment unit of a second reactor. The announcement followed unsettling news that a midmorning surge in radiation had forced emergency workers to halt their efforts to try to avert a meltdown of three other reactors at the plant, work that included the crucial task of keeping water on the reactors’ overheated cores. The radiation spike later subsided, and hours afterward the workers returned.
Authorities have doubled the number of workers at the nuclear plant to 100 but have abandoned -- at least temporarily -- plans to use helicopters to dump water on the pools because of the radiation danger. Police were considering using water cannons to spray the pools.
The burgeoning crisis has imposed a deepening isolation on the earthquake- and tsunami-battered country, with foreigners fleeing in growing numbers, rescue crews mindful of exit routes and international flights being diverted from the capital.
Another quake, centered off the coast near Tokyo and given a preliminary magnitude of 6, jolted the capital shortly after Edano’s announcement, further fraying nerves. In a rare televised address that reflected the worsening situation, Emperor Akihito told his people not to give up hope and offered his condolences to the victims of last week’s natural disasters.
“I pray for the safety of as many people as possible,” said the 77-year-old monarch, seated in a wood-paneled reception room at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
In the country’s north, tens of thousands of residents within about a 20-mile radius of the Fukushima plant were essentially trapped indoors for a second day Wednesday, urged again by authorities to avoid going out unless it was an emergency. That confinement coincided with growing hardship across the quake zone, where temperatures have dropped and snow fell overnight.
“Yesterday, we ate a bit of rice and one egg,” said Yoshiko Tsuzuki, 55, a homemaker waiting in a line outside a grocery store on the outskirts of the battered city of Sendai. “We’re hungry. I want to buy water and anything to eat. We need everything.”
It remained unclear why a nation renowned for its efficiency has been unable to marshal convoys of supply trucks into the disaster area, as China did after its 2008 earthquake. Though military vehicles were evident, few emergency supplies were seen on the major arteries from Tokyo into the hard-hit Tohuku region and other seriously affected areas.
Even in cities that lie well outside the quake zone, daily life was increasingly disrupted by rolling blackouts and the curtailment of Japan’s much-vaunted transportation network, both of which will be key to restarting the engine of the world’s third-largest economy.
Stock prices stabilized Wednesday after tumbling for two days, but there was deepening gloom over the long-term financial outlook after the worst earthquake in the country’s recorded history, a concern even among people who have far more immediate and pressing fears.
“I’m worried in the long term about Japan’s economy,” said Yoshiko Konno, in her 60s, as she charged her cellphone at a community center in Sendai. “Just think of one example: oysters! Are Americans and Europeans going to want to import Japanese oysters if they think there is a danger of radioactive contamination?”
The true scale of the disaster is still unknown. At least 10,000 people are feared dead, a tally that is expected to take weeks to finalize. About half a million others have been displaced by quake and tsunami damage or the evacuation triggered by the emergency at Fukushima, a once-obscure nuclear plant that is now the focus of worldwide attention.
Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis and Ralph Vartabedian contributed to this report from Los Angeles.
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