Japan Crisis: Nuclear Reactor Shell May be Damaged, Workers Leave

The protective shell of a reactor at the Japanese Fukushima nuclear power plant may be damaged, the government’s top spokesman said Wednesday.

Officials in protective gear check for signs of radiation on children who are from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant in Koriyama, Japan, March 13. Photo: Italo/Flickr

The inner shell of the earthquake-damaged nuclear reactor in Japan might be damaged and radiation is so high there that employees could no longer enter the complex, government’s top spokesman Yukio Edano said on Wednesday.

White smoke was seen rising Wednesday from reactor number 3 at the Japanese Fukushima nuclear power plant that is home to six reactors after a fire broke out for a second day at reactor number 4.

Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said there was definitive information about the reactor shell on number 3. It is one of the reactor’s three containment structures designed to prevent leakage of radiative materials, and Edano said radioactive steam might have leaked on Wednesday.

Earlier Yukio Edano, the chief government spokesman and the right-hand man of Prime Minister Naoto Ka, has become an unlikely hero of the earthquake crisis, became compared to the lead character on the TV show ’24’, Jack Bauer, for his tireless work ethic.

Radioactive emissions at the plant reached record levels overnight. Measurements of 1,000 millisievert were taken and on Wednesday morning, 600 to 800 millisieverts were measured, Edano said.

Being exposed to 1,000 millisieverts can cause radiation poisoning. That dose is 250 times what people usually receive in a year, but people can experience health problems at a dose of 250-400 millisieverts.

A spokesman at Japan’s nuclear safety agency told the NHK broadcaster that workers could not longer enter reactor number 3’s control room for safety reasons.

At reactor number 4, a fire had broken out on Tuesday, releasing significant amounts of radiation into the environment. The fire had been believed to be under control on Tuesday before a blaze flared again in the same part of the plant on Wednesday.

There were concerns that water levels have fallen inside a pool storing spent nuclear rods at reactor 4, leaving the fuel exposed and allowing it to overheat and melt.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said it was considering spraying boracic acid by helicopter – to prevent spent nuclear fuel rods from reaching criticality again and restarting a chain reaction – at reactor 4, but Edano said the plan was considered too dangerous.

TEPCO said on Wednesday that the possibility of a chain reaction restarting was “not zero”. Meanwhile, about 70% of the nuclear fuel rods have been damaged at the troubled reactor 1 of the Fukushima 1 plant and 33% at reactor 2, Kyodo reported, citing TEPCO officials. The reactors’ cores are believed to have partially melted.

The cooling systems at all six of the power plant’s reactors have failed after Friday’s magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami. Technicians have been working frantically ever since to prevent meltdowns as the reactor cores heat up and radiation levels have spiked.

Winds at the site on Wednesday morning were in a south-easterly-easterly direction and blowing away from land and toward the Pacific.

About 140,000 people within a radius of 20 to 30 kilometers from the plant were ordered to stay indoors. The magnitude-9 temblor and tsunami have led to what Kan has called Japan’s worst crisis since World War II.

More than 450 aftershocks have followed. The death toll reached 3,771 with 7,843 missing as of 2 p.m. today, the National Police Agency said. The number of dead and missing exceeds the more than 6,400 who died in the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

In a national address today, Emperor Akihito expressed his condolences to victims of the earthquake and tsunami, and told the people of Japan not to give up.

Japan has distributed 230,000 units of potassium iodide to evacuation centers surrounding nuclear plants, according to officials. The ingestion of iodide can help to prevent the accumulation of radioactive iodine in the thyroid. [via Hindustan Times, Bloomberg and LA Times]

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