Monday, March 21, 2011
Gray smoke rose from two reactor units Monday, temporarily stalling critical work to reconnect power lines and restore cooling systems to stabilize Japan's radiation-leaking nuclear complex.
NPR's Richard Harris reported that a fire apparently broke out on the roof of problem-plagued reactor unit No. 3 and burned for several hours, prompting officials to pull back workers at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant as radiation levels were assessed. There was no immediate spike in radiation at the complex.
But Harris said that just as the fire went out, white steam or smoke started coming up from unit 2.
"So there's been a little bit of a return to sort of the dramatic state of things that we saw last week although no big explosions, no large amount of radiation released right now," he said.
What caused the smoke to billow from unit 3 and the setback at unit 2 is under investigation, nuclear safety agency officials said. Still, in the days since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami wrecked the plant's cooling systems, both reactors have overheated and seen explosions.
Workers are racing to bring the nuclear plant under control, but the process is proceeding in fits and starts, stalled by incidents like the smoke and by the need to work methodically to make sure wiring, pumps and other machinery can be safely switched on.
The unit also alarmed plant officials over the weekend when pressure spiked but then fell back down on its own.
Japanese officials had reported some positive developments over the weekend in their battle to bring the radiation-leaking Fukushima Dai-ichi plant under control after it was damaged during the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan.
Workers had made progress restoring electric power to two reactors in the complex and using firehoses to spray more water into a pool holding spent nuclear fuel at the unit. They've also been able to hold down radiation levels at the plant so workers can spend more time in the facility.
But officials also discovered more radiation-tainted vegetables and tap water, adding to public fears about contaminated food and drink.
Problems set off by the disasters have ranged far beyond the devastated northeast coast and the wrecked nuclear plant, handing the government what it has called Japan's worst crisis since World War II. Rebuilding the northeast coast may cost as much as $235 billion. Police estimate the death toll will surpass 18,000.
The government halted shipments of spinach from one area and raw milk from another near the nuclear plant after tests found iodine exceeded safety limits. But the contamination spread to spinach in three other prefectures and to more vegetables canola and chrysanthemum greens. Tokyo's tap water, where iodine turned up Friday, now has cesium. Rain and dust are also tainted.
Early Monday, the Health Ministry advised Iitate, a village of 6,000 people about 19 miles northwest of the Fukushima plant, not to drink tap water due to elevated levels of iodine. Ministry spokesman Takayuki Matsuda said iodine three times the normal level was detected there about one twenty-sixth of the level of a chest X-ray in one liter of water.
In all cases, the government said the radiation levels were too small to pose an immediate health risk.
But Tsugumi Hasegawa was skeptical as she cared for her 4-year-old daughter at a shelter in a gymnasium crammed with 1,400 people about 50 miles from the plant.
"I still have no idea what the numbers they are giving about radiation levels mean. It's all so confusing," said Hasegawa, 29, from the small town of Futuba in the shadow of the nuclear complex. "And I wonder if they aren't playing down the dangers to keep us from panicking. I don't know who to trust."
The World Bank said Japan may need five years to rebuild from the catastrophic disasters, which caused up to $235 billion in damage. It said in a report released Monday that the cost to private insurers could be as high as $33 billion and that the government could spend $12 billion on reconstruction in the current national budget and much more later.
All six of the nuclear complex's reactor units saw trouble after the disasters knocked out cooling systems. In a small advance, the plant's operator declared Units 5 and 6 — the least troublesome — under control after their nuclear fuel storage pools cooled to safe levels. Progress was made to reconnect two other units to the electric grid and in pumping seawater to cool another reactor and replenish it and a sixth reactor's storage pools.
But the buildup in pressure inside the vessel holding unit 3's reactor presented some danger, forcing officials to consider venting. The tactic produced explosions of radioactive gas during the early days of the crisis.
"Even if certain things go smoothly, there would be twists and turns," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters. "At the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough."
Growing concerns about radiation add to the overwhelming chain of disasters Japan has struggled with since the magnitude 9.0 quake. The resulting tsunami ravaged the northeastern coast. All told, police estimates show more than about 18,400 died. More than 15,000 deaths are likely in Miyagi, the prefecture that took the full impact of the wave, said a police spokesman.
"It is very distressing as we recover more bodies day by days," said Hitoshi Sugawara, the spokesman.
Police in other parts of the disaster area declined to provide estimates, but confirmed about 3,400 deaths. Nationwide, official figures show the disasters killing more than 8,600 people, and leaving more than 13,200 people missing, but those two lists may have some overlap.
More than 450,000 people are living in shelters.