N-reactors abandoned, Japan stares at horror

N-reactors abandoned, Japan stares at horror

The break, at the No 3 reactor unit, worsened the already perilous conditions at the plant, a day after officials said the containment vessel in the No 2 reactor had also cracked.

Such were the radiation levels above the plant, moreover, that the Japanese military put off a highly unusual plan to dump water from helicopters — a tactic normally used to combat forest fires — to lower temperatures in a pool containing spent fuel rods that was overheating dangerously. The operation would have meant flying a helicopter into steam rising from the plant with potentially high radiation levels.

However, in one of a series of rapid and at times confusing pronouncements on the crisis, the authorities insisted that damage to the containment vessel at the No 3 reactor — the main focus of concern earlier on Wednesday — was unlikely to be severe.

Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, said the possibility that the No 3 reactor had “suffered severe damage to its containment vessel is low.”Earlier, he had said only that the vessel may have been damaged and columns of steam were seen rising from it in live television coverage.

Edano’s assessment came as the reactor’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, said it had been able to double the number of workers at the plant to 100 from 50. It was not immediately clear when the additional workers returned to the plant after the evacuation of 750 workers on Tuesday, leaving a skeleton crew of 50 struggling to reduce temperatures in the damaged facility.

Tokyo Electric said on Wednesday, however, that workers took cover for 45 minutes on site, and left water pumps running at reactors No 1, 2 and 3.

There was no suspension of cooling operations, said Kazuo Yamanaka, an official of Tokyo Electric, a Fukushima-based company. The vessel that possibly ruptured on Wednesday had been seen as the last fully intact line of defence against large-scale releases of radioactive material from the stricken reactor, but it was not clear how serious the possible breach might be. The revised official assessment of the severity of the damage may have been designed to reduce some concerns about the containment vessel, which encloses the core, but the implications of overheating in the fuel rod pool — which is also at the No 3 reactor — seemed potentially dire.
The developments were the latest in Japan’s swirling tragedy since an earthquake and tsunami struck the country with unbridled ferocity last Friday, causing massive loss of lives.

Earlier on Wednesday, Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, said the government believed the steam was coming from the No 3 reactor, where an explosion on Monday blew out part of the building surrounding the containment vessel.

The reactor has three layers of protection: that building; the containment vessel; and the metal cladding around fuel rods, which are inside the reactor. The government has said that those rods at the No 3 reactor were most likely already damaged. A spike in radiation levels at the plant as the steam was rising forced some of the relatively few workers left at the plant to retreat indoors, suspending some critical efforts to pump water into several reactors to keep them cool. Earlier in the morning, the company that runs the plant reported that a fire was burning at a different reactor, just hours after officials said flames that erupted on Tuesday had been doused.

A government official at Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency soon after said that flames and smoke were no longer visible, but he cautioned that it was unclear if the fire, at the Reactor No 4 building, had died out. He also was not clear if it was a new fire or if the fire on Tuesday had never gone out.

There are six reactors, over all, at the plant. Among the authorities’main concerns are pools for spent fuel rods at several reactors at the plant, including Reactor No 4, where the pool has lost some of the water needed to keep the fuel rods stable.

Worried Akihito appeals for calm
Emperor Akihito of Japan, in an unprecedented television address to the nation, said on Wednesday that he was “deeply worried” about the ongoing nuclear crisis at several stricken reactors and asked for people to act with compassion “to overcome these difficult times.”

An official with the Imperial Household Agency said that Akihito had never before delivered a nationally televised address of any kind, not even in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in 1995 that killed more than 6,000 people. The address was videotaped.

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