Japan weighs need to bury nuclear plant; tries to restore power

Japan weighs need to bury nuclear plant; tries to restore power
# 18 March 2011 20:04 (UTC +04:00)
Baku – APA. Japanese engineers conceded on Friday that burying a crippled nuclear plant in sand and concrete may be a last resort to prevent a catastrophic radiation release, the method used to seal huge leakages from Chernobyl in 1986, APA reports quoting “Reuters”.
But they still hoped to solve the crisis by fixing a power cable to two reactors by Saturday to restart water pumps needed to cool overheating nuclear fuel rods. Workers also sprayed water on the No.3 reactor, the most critical of the plant’s six.
It was the first time the facility operator had acknowledged burying the sprawling 40-year-old complex was possible, a sign that piecemeal actions such as dumping water from military helicopters or scrambling to restart cooling pumps may not work.
"It is not impossible to encase the reactors in concrete. But our priority right now is to try and cool them down first," an official from the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, told a news conference.
As Japan entered its second week after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 10-meter (33-foot) tsunami flattened coastal cities and killed thousands, the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl and Japan’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two looked far from over.
Around 6,500 people have been confirmed dead from the earthquake and tsunami while 10,300 are missing, many feared dead.
Some 390,000 people including many elderly are homeless and battling near-freezing temperatures in makeshift shelters in northeast coastal areas. Food, water, medicine and heating fuel is in short supply.
The government signaled it could have moved faster in dealing with the multiple disasters.
"An unprecedented huge earthquake and huge tsunami hit Japan. As a result, things that had not been anticipated in terms of the general disaster response took place," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference.
Japan also raised the severity rating of the nuclear crisis from Level 4 to Level 5 on the seven-level INES international scale, putting it on a par with America’s Three Mile Island accident in 1979, although some experts say it is more serious.
Chernobyl was a 7 on the INES scale.
Tourists, expatriates and many Japanese continue to leave Tokyo, fearing a blast of radioactive material from the nuclear complex 240 km (150 miles) to the north, even though health officials and the U.N. atomic watchdog have said radiation levels in the capital were not harmful.
That is little solace for about 300 nuclear plant workers toiling in the radioactive wreckage, wearing masks, goggles and protective suits with seams sealed off by duct tape to keep out radioactive particles. "My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing," Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told Reuters.
Even if engineers restore power at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the pumps may be too damaged from the earthquake, tsunami or subsequent explosions to work.
The first step is to restore power to pumps for reactors No. 1 and 2, and possibly 4, by Saturday, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, Japan’s nuclear safety agency spokesman.
"I’m leaving because my parents are terrified. I personally think this will turn out to be the biggest paper tiger the world has ever seen," said Luke Ridley, 23, from London as he sat at Narita international airport using his laptop.
"I’ll probably come back in about a month."
Amid their distress, Japanese were proud of the 300 or so nuclear plant workers toiling in the wreckage, wearing masks, goggles and protective suits sealed by duct tape.
"My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing," Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told Reuters.
Even if engineers restore power at the plant, the pumps may be too damaged to work.
The first step will be to restore power to pumps for reactors No. 1 and 2, and possibly 4, by Saturday, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, Japan’s nuclear safety agency spokesman.
By Sunday, the government expects to connect electricity to pumps for its badly damaged reactor No.3 -- a focal point in the crisis because of its use of mixed oxides, or mox, containing both uranium and highly toxic plutonium.
That could be a turning point.
"If they can get those electric pumps on and they can start pushing that water successfully up the core, quite slowly so you don’t cause any brittle failure, they should be able to get it under control in the next couple of days," said Laurence Williams, of Britain’s University of Central Lancashire.
The last-resort option of burying the reactors could leave part of Japan off-limits for decades.
FINANCIAL INTERVENTION
The Group of Seven rich nations, attempting to calm global financial markets after a tumultuous week, agreed on Friday to join in a rare concerted intervention to restrain a soaring yen.
The dollar surged more than two yen to 81.80 after the G7’s pledge to intervene, leaving behind a record low of 76.25 hit on Thursday.
Japan’s Nikkei share index ended up 2.7 percent, recouping some of the week’s stinging losses. It has lost 10.2 percent this week, wiping $350 billion off market capitalization.
Expectations that Japanese insurers and companies would repatriate billions of dollars in overseas funds to pay for a reconstruction bill that is expected to be much costlier than the one that followed the Kobe earthquake in 1995 also have helped boost the yen.
The plight of those left homeless by the earthquake and tsunami worsened following a cold snap that brought heavy snow to worst-affected areas.
Nearly 320,000 households in the north were still without electricity, officials said, and the government said at least 1.6 million households lacked running water.
Aid groups say most victims are receiving attention, but there are pockets of acute suffering.
"We’ve seen children suffering with the cold, and lacking really basic items like food and clean water," said Stephen McDonald of Save the Children, in a statement on Friday.
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