Copters drench reactor

Military helicopters and fire engines doused an overheating nuclear plant with water yesterday while the United States said it was sending aircraft to help Americans worried about the spreading radiation to leave the country.Engineers tried to run power from the main grid to start water pumps needed to cool two reactors and spent fuel rods considered to pose the biggest risk of spewing radioactivity into the atmosphere.

US officials expressed alarm about leaking radiation but took pains not to criticise Japan’s government, which appears overwhelmed by the crisis.

Washington’s actions indicated a divide with its close ally about the perilousness of the world’s worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

The top US nuclear regulator said the cooling pool for spent fuel rods at reactor No. 4 might have run dry and another was leaking.

Gregory Jaczko, head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told a parliamentary hearing that radiation levels around the cooling pool were extremely high, posing deadly risks to workers still toiling in the wreckage of the earthquakeshattered power plant.

“It would be very difficult for emergency workers to get near the reactors.

The doses they could experience would potentially be lethal doses in a very short period of time,” he said in Washington. Japan’s nuclear agency said it could not confirm if water was covering the fuel rods. The plant operator said it believed the reactor spent-fuel pool still had water as of Wednesday, and made clear its priority was the spentfuel pool at the No. 3 reactor.

Yesterday morning, military helicopters dumped around 30 tonnes of water, all aimed at this reactor.

One emergency crew temporarily put off spraying the same reactor with a water cannon because of the high radiation level, broadcaster NHK said, but another crew later began hosing it.

Health experts said panic over radiation leaks from the Daiichi plant, 240km north of Tokyo, was diverting attention from other life-threatening risks facing survivors of last Friday’s earthquake and tsunami, such as the cold, heavy snow in parts of the country and access to fresh water.

Inside the complex, torn apart by four explosions since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit last Friday, workers in protective suits and using makeshift lighting tried to monitor what was going on inside the six reactors. They have been working in short shifts to minimise radiation exposure.

The latest images from the nuclear plant showed severe damage to some of the buildings after the four exp l o s i o n s.

Two of the buildings were a mangled mix of steel and concrete.

“The worst-case scenario doesn’t bear mentioning and the best-case scenario keeps getting worse,” Perpetual Investments said in a note on the crisis.

Financial leaders of the world’s richest nations will hold talks today on ways to calm global markets roiled by the crisis and concern it will unravel a fragile global economic recover y.

One Group of Seven (G7) central banker said he was “extremely worried” about the wider effects of the disaster in Japan, the world’s third largest economy.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose country is not part of the G7, called the situation a “colossal national disaster”.

But Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano said the country’s markets were not unstable enough to warrant joint G7 currency intervention or government purchase of shares.

The yen surged to a record high against the dollar on market speculation that Japan would repatriate funds to pay for the massive cost of post-disaster reconstruction.

High radiation levels on Wednesday prevented helicopters from dropping water onto reactor No. 3 to try to cool its fuel rods after an earlier blast damaged its roof and cooling system.

Another attempt yesterday appeared to partly succeed, with two of four water drops over the site hitting their mark. The giant, twin-blade aircraft had to make precisely timed flyovers and drops to avoid the brunt of the radiation.

The plant operator described reactor No. 3 — the only one that uses plutonium in its fuel mix — as the “priority”.

Experts described plutonium as a pernicious isotope that could cause cancer even if very small quantities were ingested.

Sebastian Pflugbeil, president of the private German-based Society for Radiation Protection, said Japan’s efforts to pull the Fukushima plant back from the brink signalled “the beginning of the catastrophic phase”. “Maybe we have to pray,” he said, adding that a wind blowing any nuclear fallout east into the Pacific would limit any damage for Japan’s 127 million people in case of a meltdown or other releases, for instance from spent fuel storage pools.

Low and harmless concentrations of radioactive particles were heading from Japan towards the US, Lars- Erik De Geer, research director at the Swedish Defence Research Institute, a government agency, said, citing data from a network of international monitoring stations.

The government warned Tokyo’s 13 million people to prepare for a possible large-scale blackout but later said there was no need for one.

Still, many firms voluntarily reduced power, submerging parts of the usually neon-lit city in darkness.

In a possible sign of panic, one bank, Mizuho, said all its automated teller machines in the country crashed twice in the day after excessive transactions at some branches.

A US State Department official said flights would be laid on for Americans to leave Japan, and families of embassy staff had been authorised to go if they wanted.

Scores of flights to Japan have been halted or re-routed and air travellers are avoiding Tokyo for fear of rad i at i o n .

Yesterday, the US embassy here urged citizens living within 80km of the Fukushima plant to evacuate or remain indoors “as a precaution”, while Britain’s Foreign Office urged citizens “to consider leaving the area”.

The latest warnings were not as strong as those issued earlier by France and Australia, which urged its nationals to leave the country.

Russia said it planned to evacuate families of diplomats today, and Hong Kong urged its citizens to leave here or head south.

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