/ 19 March 2011

Japan lays power cable in race to stop radiation

Japan Lays Power Cable In Race To Stop Radiation

Exhausted engineers attached a power cable to the outside of Japan’s tsunami-crippled nuclear plant on Saturday in a desperate attempt to get water pumps going that would cool down overheated fuel rods and prevent the deadly spread of radiation.

Hopes were dashed of miracle survivors when it turned out that a story was wrong that a young man had being pulled alive from the rubble eight days after the quake and tsunami ripped through northeast Japan, triggering the nuclear crisis.

It said he had been in an evacuation centre and had just returned to his ruined home, where he lay down in a blanket.

Beleaguered Prime Minister Naoto Kan sounded out the opposition, which only hours before the quake struck had been trying to oust him from office, about establishing a government of national unity to deal with a crisis that has shattered Japan and sent a shock through global financial markets, with major economies joining forces to calm the Japanese yen.

It has also stirred unhappy memories of Japan’s past nuclear nightmare — the US atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Japan is the only country to have been hit by an atomic bomb.

Further cabling was under way before an attempt to restart water pumps needed to cool overheated nuclear fuel rods at the six-reactor Fukushima plant in north-eastern Japan, 240km north of Tokyo.

Officials expect to have power from outside drawn to Number Two reactor first. Then they will test the pump and systems to see if they can be started.

Working inside a 20km evacuation zone at Fukushima, nearly 300 engineers got a second diesel generator attached to Number Six working just after 4am, the nuclear safety agency said. They then used that power to restart cooling pumps on Number Five. Reactor Number Six is drawing power from a second diesel generator.

“Tepco has connected the external transmission line with the receiving point of the plant and confirmed that electricity can be supplied,” the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power, said in a statement.

Another 1 480m of cable are being laid before engineers try to crank up the coolers at reactor Number Two, followed by numbers One, Three and Four this weekend, company officials said.

“If they are successful in getting the cooling infrastructure up and running, that will be a significant step forward in establishing stability,” said Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at US-based FocalPoint Consulting Group.

If that fails, one option under consideration is to bury the sprawling 40-year-old plant in sand and concrete to prevent a catastrophic radiation release.

That method was used to seal huge leakages from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the world’s worst nuclear reactor disaster.

Underlining authorities’ desperation, fire trucks sprayed water overnight in a crude tactic to cool reactor Number Three, considered the most critical because of its use of mixed oxides, or mox, containing both uranium and highly toxic plutonium.

“I humbly apologise to the public for causing such trouble. Although it was due to natural disaster, I am extremely regretful,” the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper quoted Tepco CEO Masataka Shimizu as saying in a statement.

Japan has raised the severity rating of the nuclear crisis to level five from four on the seven-level INES international scale, putting it on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, although some experts say it is more serious.

Chernobyl, in Ukraine, was a seven on that scale.

Humanitarian effort
The operation to avert large-scale radiation has overshadowed the humanitarian aftermath of the 9,0-magnitude quake and 10m tsunami that struck on March 11.

Nearly 7 000 people have been confirmed killed in the double natural disaster, which turned whole towns into waterlogged and debris-shrouded wastelands.

Another 10 700 people are missing with many feared dead. About 390 000 people, including many among Japan’s ageing population, are homeless and battling near-freezing temperatures in shelters in north-eastern coastal areas.

Food, water, medicine and heating fuel are in short supply and a Worm Moon, when the full moon is at its closest to Earth, may bring floods to devastated areas where the geography has changed.

“Everything is gone, including money,” said Tsukasa Sato, a 74-year-old barber with a heart condition, as he warmed his hands in front of a stove at a shelter for the homeless.

Health officials and the UN atomic watchdog have said radiation levels in the capital Tokyo were not harmful. But the city has seen an exodus of tourists, expatriates and many Japanese, who fear a blast of radioactive material.

“I’m leaving because my parents are terrified. I personally think this will turn out to be the biggest paper tiger the world has ever seen,” said Luke Ridley (23) from London as he sat at Narita international airport using his laptop.

All Japanese prefectures have begun radiation monitoring.

The highest reading outside Fukushima came from Mito to the south. That was 1 726 microsieverts per annum. By comparison, the global average from natural sources is 2 400.

Officials asked people in the 20km “take cover” zone to follow some directives when going outside: Drive, don’t walk. Wear a mask. Wear long sleeves. Don’t go out in the rain.

Though there has been alarm around the world, experts have been warning there is little risk of radiation at dangerous levels spreading to other nations.

The US government said “minuscule” amounts of radiation were detected in California consistent with a release from Japan’s damaged facility, but there were no levels of concern.

Amid their distress, Japanese were proud of the 279 nuclear plant workers toiling in the wreckage, wearing masks, goggles and protective suits sealed by duct tape.

“My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing,” Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told Reuters.

G7 intervention
The Group of Seven rich nations succeeded in calming global financial markets in rare concerted intervention to restrain a soaring yen.

The dollar surged to ¥81,98 on Friday after the G7 moved to pour billions into markets buying dollars, euros and pounds — the first such joint intervention since the group came to the aid of the newly launched euro in 2000.

The dollar later dropped back to under ¥81, but it was still far from the record low of ¥76,25 hit on Thursday.

“The only type of intervention that actually works is coordinated intervention, and it shows the solidarity of all central banks in terms of the severity of the situation in Japan,” said Kathy Lien, director of currency research at GFT in New York.

Japan’s Nikkei share index ended up 2,7%, recouping some of the week’s stinging losses. It lost 10,2% for the week, wiping $350-billion off market capitalisation.

The plight of the homeless worsened following a cold snap that brought heavy snow to the worst-affected areas.

Nearly 290 000 households in the north were still without electricity, officials said, and the government said about 940 000 households lacked running water.

Aid groups say most victims are getting help, but there are pockets of acute suffering.

“We’ve seen children suffering with the cold, and lacking really basic items like food and clean water,” Stephen McDonald of Save the Children said in a statement. – Reuters