Japan Races To Cool Reactor

Firefighters in Japan have resumed pumping in water to cool the crippled Fukushima nuclear power station in an operation described by the UN’s atomic chief as a “race against time”.

Overnight, firefighters used a telescopic crane to continue dumping water inside the building that houses the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima plant, 240 kilometres north of Tokyo.

The plant’s operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) believes the operation is reducing the threat of a meltdown in nuclear fuel storage ponds inside the building.

However, 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.

The raised rating means the situation at the Fukushima site is now regarded as having “wider consequences”, with reports that some minuscule particles of radiation, likely from Fukushima, have been reportedly detected on the west coast of the United States.

The national police agency said 7,197 people had been confirmed dead and 10,905 officially listed as missing – a total of 18,102 – as of 9:00am Saturday (local time) as a result of the March 11 catastrophe, making it Japan’s worst natural catastrophe since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed over 142,000 people.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano, who is visiting the country, said the crisis at the nuclear facility – where there have been fires and explosions – was a “very grave and serious accident”.

Mr Amano emphasised that Japan must reach out for help after criticism that authorities had not issued information fast enough and fears that a larger radiation leak might contaminate the 12-million-strong capital.

“It is important that the international community, including the IAEA, handles this jointly,” he said in Tokyo. “Especially cooling [the reactors] is extremely important, so I think it is a race against time.”

Japan has said radiation levels from the plant pose no health threat outside a 20-kilometre exclusion zone, despite slightly elevated levels in Tokyo earlier in the week.

TEPCO’s president has apologised for the ongoing crisis, saying while the cause of the accident was a natural disaster, he was sorry for the concern it had caused.

Electricity supplies to the Fukushima plant have been reconnected and over the weekend each reactor building should be connected to that supply, with the hope that cooling systems can then be restored.

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.

It is the third of four buildings at the site that houses the reactor that is of most concern, and authorities have been pouring water into it in a desperate bid to cool down the stored fuel rods that have suffered as a result of the cooling systems having been damaged.

On Friday there were seven fire trucks from Tokyo’s metropolitan fire brigade brought in to carry out the operation, and a similar set-up is expected today as they try to reduce the temperature in the storage areas.

Homeless suffering

Half a million people made homeless when the huge tsunami razed Japan’s north-east coast were still suffering in appalling conditions, struggling to stay warm in freezing temperatures and with scant supplies of food and fuel.

But Japan’s prime minister Naoto Kan promised the traumatised nation: “We will overcome this tragedy and recover… We will once more rebuild Japan.”

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.

There are still no reports of Australian casualties, but communications in affected areas remain difficult.

Global concerns remain focused on the crippled Fukushima number one plant, with radiation fears triggering an exodus of foreign nationals, particularly after Britain, France and others advised their citizens to leave Tokyo.

But an expert at the UN’s atomic watchdog said current radiation levels in Japan did not pose any harm to human health.

Nevertheless, many nations shifted embassies out of Tokyo, and the mood grew jittery even far from Japan, with panic-buying of iodine pills in the US and Asian airports scanning passengers from Japan for radiation contamination.

The capital’s usually teeming streets were quiet, although some residents headed to work as usual. The city’s neon glare was dimmed at night, in line with a power-saving drive forced by shutdowns at other atomic plants.

“This town has become so lonesome at night, as many stores keep the lights off and close early,” said Shin Fujii, who runs a Spanish restaurant where custom has slowed to just a few diners a day.

“As I try to get as much information as possible about the nuclear accident, I also see baseless rumours on the internet as well. I just try to do the best I can.”

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