Concern over Japan’s ability to contain its nuclear crisis grew on Thursday, as military helicopters dumped water on to an overheating power plant and foreign governments urged citizens to leave Tokyo.
Four Chinooks poured tonnes of water on to the nuclear facility crippled by Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami, which pulverised the north-east coast and left countless thousands struggling in bitterly cold conditions.
The official toll of the dead and missing after the devastating natural disaster has exceeded 13 000, police said, with the number of confirmed dead at 5 178 in the country’s biggest catastrophe since World War II.
As Japanese and international teams mounted a massive search and relief effort, reports from some battered coastal towns suggested the final toll could be far higher.
Millions have been left without water, electricity, fuel or enough food and hundreds of thousands more are homeless, the misery compounded by heavy snowfalls, freezing cold and wet conditions.
The tense nation also saw the stock market fall again on Thursday, ending the morning session down 2,09% as a surging yen added to fears about the economic fallout — concerns that have also seen global stocks drop.
The helicopter operation at the Fukushima number-one power plant on the Pacific coast, about 250km north-east of Tokyo, aims to keep the fuel rods inside reactors and containment pools submerged under water.
The latest threat at the plant was the fuel-rod pools, particularly in reactor number four, containing used fuel rods that have been withdrawn from reactors yet remain highly radioactive.
They are immersed in cooling water for many years until they shed enough heat to become manageable for storage.
Water in one of these pools was evaporating because of the rods’ heat, and temperatures were slowly rising in two other pools because coolant pumps were knocked out by the March 11 tsunami, experts say.
They warned that if the tanks run dry and leave the fuel rods exposed, the rods could melt or catch fire, creating potentially lethal levels of radiation that would prevent personnel intervening.
At the same time, Japanese engineers were focused on restoring the power supply to the stricken power plant in an attempt to reactivate its cooling system.
The power supply to the plant could partially resume later on Thursday, the country’s nuclear safety agency said.
“If the restoration work is completed, we will be able to activate various electric pumps and pour water into reactors and pools for spent nuclear fuel,” a spokesperson for Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company said.
United States President Barack Obama offered to give Japan any support that it needs, in a telephone call with Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the Japanese leader’s spokesperson said.
Urged to steer clear
But as crews battled to prevent an atomic disaster, more foreign governments urged their citizens to steer clear of quake-stricken north-east Japan and the capital, Tokyo.
“If you’re in Tokyo or any of the affected prefectures. .. we are saying that you should depart,” said Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.
Britain advised its citizens to consider leaving Tokyo and north-eastern Japan, though British officials said there is still “no real human health issue that people should be concerned about”.
France said it was assigning two government planes to assist French citizens who wanted to leave Japan. Germany, Italy and The Netherlands also advised nationals to leave or refrain from visiting the north-east.
US officials warned nationals living within 80km of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant to evacuate or seek shelter.
The Japanese government has told people living up to 10km beyond a 20km exclusion zone around the plant to stay indoors. More than 200 000 people have already been evacuated from the zone.
The evacuation plans came against a background of mounting concern over the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe.
“The site is effectively out of control,” European Union energy chief Guenther Oettinger told a European Parliament committee, a day after he said Japan was facing “apocalypse”.
France’s Nuclear Safety Authority said the disaster now equated to a six on the seven-point international scale for nuclear accidents, ranking the crisis second in gravity only to the level-seven Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
US Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the events in Japan “actually appear to be more serious” than the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, a partial reactor meltdown that led to small releases of radioactivity.
“To what extent we don’t really know now,” Chu said in Washington.
Gregory Jaczko, chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, warned there was no water left in the spent fuel pool of the plant’s number-four reactor, resulting in “extremely high” radiation levels.
UN atomic watchdog chief Yukiya Amano said the situation was “very serious” as he prepared to fly out to see the damage for himself.
Amano, the Japanese chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, insisted on Tuesday there was no comparison to the Chernobyl crisis, when radiation spewed across Europe.
Japan’s chief government spokesperson, Yukio Edano, said radiation levels from the plant posed no immediate health threat outside the 20km exclusion zone despite slightly elevated levels detected in Tokyo over the past few days.
‘Pushed to the limit’
Aside from the nuclear threat, the full scale of the quake and tsunami disaster was slowly becoming clear.
“The number of people killed is increasing day by day and we do not know how many people have fallen victim,” Japan’s Emperor Akihito said in a rare televised address to the nation on Wednesday.
“People are being forced to evacuate in such severe conditions of bitter cold, with shortages of water and fuel … I cannot help praying that rescue work is done swiftly and people’s lives get better, even a little.”
The governor of Fukushima prefecture, home to the crippled nuclear plant, said people were at breaking point.
“The worry and anger of the people of Fukushima has been pushed to the limit,” Yuhei Sato told NHK. — AFP