Japan Gets Power To Nuclear Plant

An external transmission line has been connected to Japan’s stricken nuclear power plant and authorities say electricity can be supplied.

In a statement Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said it “planned to supply Unit 2 [reactor No. 2] first, followed by Unit 1, Unit 3 and Unit 4 … because Unit 2 is expected to be less damaged”.

The connection may provide a breakthrough to engineers desperately trying to avert a nuclear disaster after the country was hit by an earthquake and tsunami last week.

In a crude tactic underlining authorities’ desperation, fire engines also sprayed water overnight on a third reactor deemed to be in the most critical state at the Fukushima plant in north-eastern Japan, 240 kilometres north of Tokyo.

Nearly 300 engineers were working inside a 20-kilometre evacuation zone to attach power lines to two of the six reactors in order to restart water pumps and cool overheated nuclear fuel rods.

“Once we have an electric power supply, we will go slowly and carefully through the plant checking the various machines to see what is working and to also avoid short-circuiting them,” a nuclear safety agency official said in the latest of round-the-clock briefings.

If those tactics fail, the option of last resort may be 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.

Japan has raised the severity rating of the nuclear crisis from level 4 to level 5 on the seven-level INES international scale, putting it on a par with the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the US, although some experts say it is more serious. Chernobyl, in Ukraine, was a 7 on that scale.

The crisis has also stirred unhappy memories of Japan’s past nuclear nightmare – the US atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The UN Atomic agency at least said the situation in Japan was not deteriorating despite remaining “very serious”.

Radiation levels currently detected in Japan and beyond do not pose any harm to human health, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expert said.

“Regular dose information is now being received from 47 Japanese cities,” International Atomic Energy Agency scientific adviser Graham Andrew said.

“Dose rates in Tokyo and other cities remain far from levels which would require action. In other words, they are not dangerous to human health.”

Minuscule amounts of radioactive particles believed to have come from the Fukushima plant have now been detected on the US west coast, diplomatic sources said. But the level of radioactivity was far too low to cause any harm to humans.

Humanitarian crisis

The operation to avert a large-scale radiation leak has overshadowed the humanitarian aftermath of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 10-metre 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.

And the Department of Foreign Affairs says it is still trying to track down 10 Australians in the worst affected areas of Japan.

DFAT says it has managed to confirm the safety of nearly 4,300 Australians who were in Japan when the tsunami struck.

The department says there are still no reports of Australian casualties, but communications in affected areas remain difficult.

Some 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.

“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.

The Japanese government has acknowledged it could have reacted more quickly to the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami.

Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edeno has admitted contingency plans had failed to anticipate the scale of the disaster.

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.

“I’ll probably come back in about a month.”

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,” said Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

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