Japan’s top government spokesman has warned of the risk of a second explosion at the quake-hit Fukushima nuclear plant, but says that reactor No. 3 can withstand it as reactor No. 1 did on Saturday.
The country is battling a feared meltdown of two reactors at the power plant as the full horror of the disaster emerges on the ravaged north-east coast.
“There is the possibility of an explosion in the third reactor, as in the case of the first reactor,” chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano told a televised press conference.
But he says the reactor will survive and there will be no adverse effect on the health of nearby residents.
Meanwhile, excessive levels of radiation at a second Japanese nuclear facility at Onagawa after Friday’s earthquake have led authorities to report a state of emergency, the UN nuclear agency said.
The radiation emergency is widening in earthquake-ravaged Japan, with the cooling systems vital for preventing overheating failing at the second nuclear reactor in Fukushima.
Mr Edano says the risk of a second explosion has been heightened by a hydrogen build-up in reactor No. 3 when cooling water levels fell.
The nuclear plant’s operator has been pumping seawater into the reactor to reduce the heat.
Mr Edano says that in an explosion, parts of the reactor may become deformed, but has voiced confidence that it will survive the impact and that there will not be a nuclear meltdown.
“The situation would not affect human health, but we are making this announcement because we cannot rule out the possibility of an explosion incident,” Mr Edano said.
Asked earlier whether meltdowns had occurred, Mr Edano said: “We are acting on the assumption that there is a high possibility that one has occurred” in the plant’s No. 1 reactor.
“As for the No. 3 reactor, we are acting on the assumption that it is possible,” he said of the plant situated 250 kilometres north-east of Tokyo.
An explosion at the ageing nuclear plant blew apart the building housing reactor No. 1 on Saturday, a day after the biggest quake ever recorded in Japan unleashed a monster 10-metre tsunami.
Mr Edano says some radiation has escaped, but the levels released into the air have so far not reached levels high enough to affect human health.
A total of 22 people have been hospitalised after being exposed to radioactivity, although it was not immediately clear to what degree they were exposed and what condition they were in.
Mr Edano says measures are being taken to help those who might be affected.
“We will set up some centres for medical services and for those people who are anxious we will be screening their radiation level,” he said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says about 200,000 people have so far been evacuated from the area around the two Fukushima plants that house a total of 10 reactors.
Japan’s nuclear safety agency rated the incident at four on the international scale of zero to seven. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States was rated five, while the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was a seven.
After Saturday’s blast, which sent smoke billowing into the sky, the government moved to calm growing fears, saying the explosion did not rupture the container surrounding the reactor itself.
Workers doused the stricken reactor with seawater to try to avert catastrophe, in what US experts warned was an “act of desperation” that, in the worst-case scenario, could foreshadow a much more serious disaster.
The plant’s operator said that so much water had evaporated from the No. 3 reactor that at one stage the top three metres of the fuel rods were exposed to the air, although they were later covered again.
The nuclear industry provides around 30 per cent of Japan’s power needs.
In total, 11 of the roughly 50 nuclear reactors in Japan, located in the worst affected areas, shut down following the earthquake.
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