No quick fix seen at Japan’s nuclear plant

Even once emergency workers restore power flow to reactors, the danger is far from over

Topics: Japan Earthquake, Japan,

No quick fix seen at Japan's nuclear plantResidents pay their last respects to a victim as a van carrying the coffin leaves a temporary morgue at a bowling alley in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture Monday, March 21, 2011 as the death toll continues to rise following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast coast of Japan. (AP Photo/Mark Baker) (Credit: AP)

Officials raced Monday to restore electricity to Japan’s leaking nuclear plant, but getting the power flowing will hardly be the end of their battle: With its mangled machinery and partly melted reactor cores, bringing the complex under control is a monstrous job.

Restoring the power to all six units at the tsunami-damaged complex is key, because it will, in theory, power up the maze of motors, valves and switches that help deliver cooling water to the overheated reactor cores and spent fuel pools that are leaking radiation.

Ideally, officials believe it should only take a day to get the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear under control once the cooling system is up and running. In reality, the effort to end the crisis is likely to take weeks.

Late Monday night, the deputy director general of Japan’s nuclear safety body suggested to reporters why there is so much uncertainty about when the job will be finished.

“We have experienced a very huge disaster that has caused very large damage at a nuclear power generation plant on a scale that we had not expected,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The nuclear plant’s cooling systems were wrecked by the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11. Since then, conditions at the plant have been volatile; a plume of smoke rose from two reactor units Monday, prompting workers to evacuate.

In another setback, the plant’s operator said Monday it had just discovered that some of the cooling system’s key pumps at the complex’s troubled Unit 2 are no longer functional — meaning replacements have to be brought in. Tokyo Electric Power Co. said it had placed emergency orders for new pumps, but how long it would take for them to arrive was unclear.

If officials can get the power turned on, get the replacement pumps working and get enough seawater into the reactors and spent fuel pools, it would only take a day to bring the temperatures back to a safe, cooling stage, said Ryohei Shiomi, an official with the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

And if not?

“There is nothing else we can do but keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Shiomi said.

In other words, officials would continue dousing the plant in seawater — and hope for the best.

An official of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in Washington that Units 1, 2 and 3 have all seen damage to their reactor cores, but that containment is intact. The assessment dispels some concerns about Unit 2, where an explosion damaged a pressure-reducing chamber around the bottom of the reactor core.



“I would say optimistically that things appear to be on the verge of stabilizing,” said Bill Borchardt, the commission’s executive director for operations.

Monday’s evacuation of workers from the plant came after smoke began rising from the spent fuel storage pool of the plant’s problem-plagued Unit 3, Tokyo Electric spokesman Hiroshi Aizawa said. Unit 3 also alarmed plant officials over the weekend with a sudden surge of pressure in its reactor core.

What caused the smoke to billow first from Unit 3 and then from Unit 2 is under investigation, nuclear safety agency officials said. Still, in the days since the earthquake and tsunami, both reactors have overheated and seen explosions. Workers were evacuated from the area to buildings nearby, though radiation levels remained steady, the officials said.

Problems set off by the disasters have ranged far beyond the shattered northeast coast and the wrecked nuclear plant, handing the government what it has called Japan’s worst crisis since World War II. Rebuilding may cost as much as $235 billion. Police estimate the death toll will surpass 18,000.

Traces of radiation are tainting vegetables and some water supplies, although in amounts the government and health experts say do not pose a risk to human health in the short term. That has caused the government to ban sale of raw milk, spinach and canola from prefectures over a swath from the plant toward Tokyo. The government has just started to test fish and shellfish.

Tokyo Electric said radioactive iodine about 127 times normal levels and radioactive cesium about 25 times above the norm were detected in seawater 100 meters (yards) off the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The Health Ministry has advised Iitate, a village of 6,000 people about 30 kilometers (19 miles) northwest of the 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.

“Please do not overreact, and act calmly,” Chief Cabinet spokesman Yukio Edano said in the government’s latest appeal to ease public concerns. “Even if you eat contaminated vegetables several times, it will not harm your health at all.”

Edano said Tokyo Electric would compensate farmers affected by bans on milk, spinach and canola.

The World Health Organization said Japan will have to do more to reassure the public about food safety.

“Walking outside for a day and eating food repeatedly are two different things. This is why they’re going to have to take some decisions quickly in Japan to shut down and stop food being used completely from zones which they feel might be affected,” WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said.

In a travel warning, the State Department offered potassium iodide to its staff in Japan as a precaution but advised its employees to refrain from taking the compound at this time. The government says it is making potassium iodide available “out of an abundance of caution” to its personnel and family members, and the compound should only be consumed after specific instruction from the U.S. government.

The troubles at Fukushima have in some ways overshadowed the natural catastrophe, threatening a wider disaster if the plant spews more concentrated forms of radiation than it has so far.

The nuclear safety agency and Tokyo Electric reported significant progress over the weekend and Monday. Electrical teams, having finished connecting three of the plant’s six units, were working to connect the rest by Tuesday, the utility said.

Once done, however, pumps and other equipment have to be checked — and the reactors cleared of dangerous gas — before the power can be restored. For instance, a motorized pump to inject water into Unit 2′s overheated reactor and spent fuel storage pool needs to be replaced, said Nishiyama, the official with NISA.

The World Bank said in a report Monday that Japan may need five years to rebuild from the disasters, which caused up to $235 billion in damage, saying the cost to private insurers will be up to $33 billion and that the government will spend $12 billion on reconstruction in the current national budget and much more later.

All told, police estimate around 18,400 people died from the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami. More than 15,000 deaths are likely in Miyagi, the prefecture that took the full impact of the wave, said a police 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 killed more than 8,800 people and left more than 12,600 missing, but those two lists may have some overlap.

The disasters have displaced another 452,000, who are in shelters.

Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writers Jeff Donn, Shino Yuasa, Mayami Saito and Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo, and Matthew Daly in Rockville, Md., contributed to this story.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>