Water cannon to be used to cool fuel

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Japan’s nuclear crisis appeared to be spinning out of control yesterday after workers withdrew briefly from a stricken power plant because of surging radiation levels and a helicopter failed to drop water on the most troubled reactor.In a sign of desperation, the police will try to cool spent nuclear fuel at one of the facility’s reactors with water cannon, normally used to quell riots.

Early in the day, another fire broke out at the earthquake-crippled facility, which has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo over the past 24 hours, triggering fear in the capital and international alarm.

Workers were trying to clear debris to build a road so fire trucks could reach reactor No. 4 at the Daiichi complex in Fukushima, 240km north of here.

Flames were no longer visible at the building housing the reactor.

High radiation levels prevented a helicopter from flying to the site to drop water into the No. 3 reactor — whose roof was damaged by an earlier explosion and where steam was seen rising earlier in the day — to try to cool its fuel rods.

The plant operator described No. 3 as the “priority”. That reactor is the only one at Daiichi which uses plutonium in its fuel mix.

According to US government research, plutonium is toxic to humans and once absorbed in the bloodstream can linger for years in the bone marrow or liver and can lead to cancer.

The situation at No. 4 reactor, where the fire broke out, was “not so good”, the plant operator added, while water was being poured into reactors No. 5 and 6, indicating that the entire six-reactor facility was now at risk of overheating.

Nuclear experts said the solutions being proposed to quell radiation leaks at the complex were last-ditch efforts to stem what could well be remembered as one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. The government said radiation levels outside the plant’s gates were stable but, in a sign of being overwhelmed, appealed to private companies to help deliver supplies to tens of thousands of people evacuated from around the complex.

“People would not be in immediate danger if they went outside with these levels. I want people to understand this,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a televised news conference, referring to people living outside a 30km exclusion zone. Some 140,000 people inside the zone have been told to stay indoors.

Panic over the economic impact of last Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami knocked US$620 billion (RM1.89 trillion) off Japan’s stock market over the first two days of this week, but the Nikkei index rebounded yesterday to end up by 5.68 per cent.

Nevertheless, estimates of losses to Japanese output from damage to buildings, production and consumer activity ranged from between 10 and 16 trillion yen (RM381 billion to RM610 billion, up to 1½ times the economic losses from the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Damage to Japan’s manufacturing base and infrastructure is also threatening significant disruption to the global supply chain, particularly in the technology and auto sectors.

Scores of flights to Japan have been halted or rerouted and air travellers are avoiding Tokyo for fear of radiation.

Yesterday, France and Australia urged their nationals in Japan to leave the country as authorities grappled with the world’s most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

The plight of hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake and tsunami that followed worsened overnight following a cold snap that brought snow to some of the worst-affected areas.

While the death toll stands at around 4,000, more than 7,000 are listed as missing and the figure is expected to rise.

Japanese officials said they were talking to the US military about possible help at the plant.

Concern has mounted that the skeleton crews dealing with the crisis might not be big enough or were exhausted after working for days since the earthquake damaged the facility.

Authorities withdrew 750 workers on Tuesday, leaving only 50. All those remaining were pulled out for almost an hour yesterday because radiation levels were too high, but they were later allowed to return.

Arnie Gundersen, a 39-year veteran of the nuclear industry who worked on reactor designs similar to Daiichi plant, said 50 or so people could not babysit six nuclear plants. “That evacuation (of 750 workers) is a sign they may be throwing in the towel.” In the first hint of international frustration at the pace of updates from Japan, Yukiya Amano, directorgeneral of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he wanted more timely and detailed information.

“We do not have all the details of the information so what we can do is limited,” Amano told a news conference in Vienna. “I am trying to further improve the communication.”

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