Japan fights to avert nuclear meltdown after quake

FUKUSHIMA, Japan Sun Mar 13, 2011 7:27pm EDT

1 of 21. People walk along a flooded street in Ishimaki City, Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan, after an earthquake and tsunami struck the area, March 13, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Kyodo

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FUKUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - Japan battled on Monday to prevent a nuclear catastrophe and to care for millions of people without power or water in its worst crisis since World War Two, after a massive earthquake and tsunami that are feared to have killed more than 10,000 people.

A badly wounded nation has seen whole villages and towns wiped off the map by a wall of water, leaving in its wake an international humanitarian effort of epic proportions.

"The earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear incident have been the biggest crisis Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War Two," a grim-faced Prime Minister Naoto Kan told a news conference on Sunday.

"We're under scrutiny on whether we, the Japanese people, can overcome this crisis."

Officials confirmed three nuclear reactors north of Tokyo were at risk of overheating, raising fears of an uncontrolled radiation leak.

As Kan spoke, engineers worked desperately to cool the fuel rods in the damaged reactors. If they fail, the containers that house the core could melt, or even explode, releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Kan also said the world's third biggest economy faced rolling power blackouts when it reopens for business on Monday.

Tokyo's financial markets will reopen, with a 0.5 percent fall in U.S. S&P futures pointing to stocks taking a hit, while the yen rallied in volatile trading on expectations of repatriations by insurers and other companies.

Broadcaster NHK, quoting a police official, said more than 10,000 people may have been killed as the wall of water triggered by Friday's 8.9-magnitude quake surged across the coastline, reducing whole towns to rubble.

"I would like to believe that there still are survivors," said Masaru Kudo, a soldier dispatched to Rikuzentakata, a nearly flattened town of 24,500 people in far-northern Iwate prefecture.

Kyodo news agency said 80,000 people had been evacuated from a 20-km (12-mile) radius around the stricken nuclear plant, joining more than 450,000 other evacuees from quake and tsunami-hit areas in the northeast of the main island Honshu.

Almost 2 million households were without power in the freezing north, the government said. There were about 1.4 million without running water.

"I am looking for my parents and my older brother," Yuko Abe, 54, said in tears at an emergency center in Rikuzentakata.

"Seeing the way the area is, I thought that perhaps they did not make it. I also cannot tell my siblings that live away that I am safe, as mobile phones and telephones are not working."

NUCLEAR CRISIS

The most urgent crisis centres on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, where all three reactors were threatening to overheat, and where authorities said they had been forced to vent radioactive steam into the air to relieve reactor pressure.

The complex, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, was rocked by an explosion on Saturday, which blew the roof off a reactor building. The government did not rule out further blasts there but said this would not necessarily damage the reactor vessels.

Authorities have poured sea water in all three of the reactors at the complex, run by Tohoku Electric Power Co, to cool them down.

Nuclear expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the authorities appeared to be having some success in their efforts to avert a bigger disaster, but added the situation was still "touch and go".

"Injection of sea water into a core is an extreme measure," he said. "this is not according to the book."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said there might have been a partial meltdown of the fuel rods at the No. 1 reactor, where Saturday's blast took place, and there was a risk of an explosion at the building housing the No. 3 reactor, but that it was unlikely to affect the reactor core container.

A Japanese official said 22 people have been confirmed to have suffered radiation contamination and up to 190 may have been exposed. Workers in protective clothing used handheld scanners to check people arriving at evacuation centres.

"NOT ANOTHER CHERNOBYL"

The nuclear accident, the worst since Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine in 1986, sparked criticism that authorities were ill-prepared for such a massive quake and the threat that could pose to the country's nuclear power industry.

Prime Minister Kan sought to allay radiation fears:

"Radiation has been released in the air, but there are no reports that a large amount was released," Jiji news agency quoted him as saying. "This is fundamentally different from the Chernobyl accident."

Nevertheless, France recommended its citizens leave the Tokyo region, citing the risk of further earthquakes and uncertainty about the nuclear plants.

Kan said food, water and other necessities such as blankets were being delivered by vehicles but because of damage to roads, authorities were considering air and sea transport. He also said the government was preparing to double the number of troops mobilised to 100,000.

Thousands spent another freezing night huddled in blankets over heaters in emergency shelters along the northeastern coast, a scene of devastation after the quake sent a 10-meter (33-foot) wave surging through towns and cities in the Miyagi region, including its main coastal city of Sendai.

There were also fears another powerful quake could strike, with Japan's Meteorological Agency saying there was a 70 percent chance of an aftershock with a magnitude of 7.0 or greater in the three days from 10 a.m. (0100 GMT) on Sunday.

Aftershocks in the 5 to 6 magnitude range have shaken the ground repeatedly since Friday's huge quake.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Already saddled with debts twice the size of its $5 trillion economy and threatened with credit downgrades, the government is discussing a temporary tax rise to fund relief work.

Analysts expect the economy to suffer a hit in the short-term, then get a boost from reconstruction activity.

"When we talk about natural disasters, we tend to see an initial sharp drop in production ... then you tend to have a V-shaped rebound. But initially everyone underestimates the damage," said Michala Marcussen, head of global economics at Societe Generale.

Ratings agency Moody's said on Sunday the fiscal impact of the earthquake would be temporary and have a limited play on whether it would downgrade Japan's sovereign debt.

Risk modeling company AIR Worldwide said insured losses from the earthquake could reach nearly $35 billion.

The Bank of Japan is expected to pledge on Monday to supply as much money as needed to prevent the disaster from destabilizing markets and its banking system.

It is also expected to signal its readiness to ease monetary policy further if the damage from the worst quake since records began in Japan 140 years ago threatens a fragile economic recovery.

The earthquake was the fifth most powerful to hit the world in the past century. It surpassed the Great Kanto quake of September 1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area.

The 1995 Kobe quake killed 6,000 and caused $100 billion in damage, the most expensive natural disaster in history. Economic damage from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was estimated at about $10 billion.

(Additional reporting by Risa Maeda and Leika Kihara in Tokyo and Chris Meyers and Kim Kyung-hoon in Sendai; Writing by Mark Bendeich and Alex Richardson; Editing by Dean Yates)

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Comments (23)
‘the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had been told by Japan that levels “have been observed to lessen in recent hours”.’

This scares me. It’s an international agency passing on second hand information from a government agency that, we hope, is not fudging the truth or outright lying. Certainly the incentives are to be tight lipped at a time when the public has a right to now. Hopefully Reuters and other news outlets are trying to validate what the Japanese government is saying, by using their own radiation counters and other means.

This same dynamic — passing on second hand information as if it had been validated as true — also exists in most stories about possible impact on US reactors. We’re told all about our great nuclear technology but the Japanese have great nuclear technology, too. The public needs the straight facts from reporters, not journalism by press release or public statements.

At the least, this should be a wakeup call in the US that we need to develop and promote energy sources that are not potentially destructive to human life if nature turns violent. We can’t count on creating perfect technology. Nature will destroy our toys. Mistakes will happen.

Mar 12, 2011 8:39pm EST  --  Report as abuse
diddums wrote:
The true heros of the world are the Japanese people who continue to work at these plants despite the danger. They are truely putting their lives on the line for a noble cause and humanity in general. A very hard time for the families whose parents are making this sacrifice.

Mar 12, 2011 9:36pm EST  --  Report as abuse
notafoolgoog wrote:
I highly doubt Reuters is getting close enough to Fukushima or the other 2 reactors under emergency to check the veracity of the Japanese government’s statements.
(first of all, you’d have to have a baseline on radiation and cesium..)…

It is patently obvious, regretfully, that the Japanese gov’t is vastly minimizing the threat. Why? Save face, keep panic at bay. But what is better – calm public or irradiated public?

With radiation and cesium – in any quantities – in the atmosphere, it is irresponsible to keep the citizenry informed.

The IAEA is toothless and lazy.

Heroes to be working at the plants -I’m certain they are not doing it out of patriotism. It’s not a noble cause – do you think they do this willingly? hah…they are in harm’s way due to a corrupt utilities magnate (TEPCO) which has been corrupt and suspected of falsifying safety records. This reactor (Fukushima)was due to be decommissioned within a quarter…

The seawater is not working. The rods are encased in 6″thick stainless 1560 c. The rods run 2200 c. Not cool enough.

The Japanese gov’t just publicly said “a meltdown may be happening”…
If you follow news (AP/anything credible) …most US nuclear specialists believe a meltdown is a near certainty

Mar 12, 2011 10:52pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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