Japan dumps water on stricken reactors


Military helicopters undertake aerial spraying in bid to avert meltdown in quake-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Military helicopters in Japan have dumped water on reactors at the quake-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in an effort to cool down a spent fuel storage pool, local media said.
The operator of the power plant in northeast Japan said on Thursday that pressure was rising again at reactor number 3, which includes plutonium and uranium in its fuel mix.
Two CH-47 helicopters scooped up seawater and released it over the reactors while another helicopter checked radiation levels in the air.
The plant, 220km north of Tokyo, has been hit by several explosions after a devastating earthquake and tsunami last Friday.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, reporting from Osaka, said “four flights were made and of those water-drops by the helicopters, only one hit its target”. The effort has since been abandoned, he said.
“Given that more than a hundred would be required to hit dead-on to fill the reactors with enough water to cool the rods, it is – forgive the phrase – a bit of drop in the ocean at the moment,” our correspondent said.
The mission was part of efforts to cool the storage pools at the number 3 and number 4 reactors. The cooling systems at both reactors are not functioning, raising fears that spent fuel rods could melt and release radioactive material outside the building.
Police water cannons were also set to support the effort in addition to equipment already in use over recent days at the plant.
Toshimi Kitazawa, the defence minister, said an additional 11 military vehicles would be deployed for efforts to help cool the reactors, while pumps supplied by the US armed forces were also being transferred.

Nuclear safety

The government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said the top priority should be pouring water into the fuel-rod pools at reactors 3 and 4, which may be boiling and are not fully covered by roofs that would reduce radiation leaks.

An official at plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said the pool at the number-four reactor “seemed to have water” on Wednesday, based on aerial observation carried out by the military helicopters.

The nuclear agency said two radioactive substances, cesium and radioactive iodine, have been detected near the Fukushima number 1 reactor.

The agency said this indicates that some of the metal containers of uranium fuel may have started melting. The substances are produced by fuel fission, NHK, Japan’s broadcaster said.

Bad weather conditions are impeding rescue and relief efforts [Getty]

Naoto Sekimura, a University of Tokyo professor, told NHK that only a small part of the fuel may have melted and leaked outside.

He called on residents near the power station to stay calm, saying that most of the fuel remains inside the reactor, which has stopped operation and is being cooled.

Some 70 workers have been using pumps to pour seawater to cool reactors at the plant, according to media reports, using electricity from borrowed mobile generators.

Paul Carroll, a programme director at Ploughshares, an international nuclear security foundation, told Al Jazeera that the engineers at the plant are doing heroic work.

“In order to be adequately protected from the radiation they would need to have essentially leaded shielding. If that is what they are equipped with, it would make it extremely difficult for them to actually move around.

“I suspect that these are almost – I hate to say it – suicide missions. These workers have signed up for a mission that puts themselves behind their countrymen,” Carroll said.

Death toll

Meanwhile, the official death toll from last Friday’s twin disasters has risen to 5,198, Japanese police has confirmed, with relief efforts being hampered by adverse weather conditions in the north of Japan.

The 9.0-magnitude quake – the biggest in Japan’s history – triggered a massive tsunami that decimated large tracts of the country’s northeastern coastline.

“Half a million people are still living in evacuation centres. The cold and the ice make rescue efforts very difficult,” our correspondent said.

The US state department late on Wednesday authorised the voluntary departure of embassy family members in quake-damaged Japan.

“We have not ordered them to leave. We have made this opportunity available to them should they choose to exercise it,” Patrick Kennedy, a state department official said in a conference call to reporters.

The authorisation applies to around 600 family members of diplomats in the US embassy in Tokyo, the consulate in Nagoya and a language school in Yokohama, Kennedy said.

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