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Explosion at Japanese nuclear plant

An explosion sent white smoke rising above at a nuclear plant where a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled cooling systems in northeastern Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, Japanese public broadcaster NHK said Saturday, citing the country’s nuclear and industrial safety agency.
The Tokyo Electric Company said four workers on the ground were injured, NHK reported.It was not immediately clear where the blast occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, or what caused it.One expert said the explosion was “clearly a serious situation,” but may not be related to problems inside the plant’s nuclear reactor.Other effects of the tsunami may have caused the blast, said Malcolm Grimston, associate fellow for energy, environment and development at London’s Chatham House.
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“It’s clearly a serious situation, but that in itself does not necessarily mean major (nuclear) contamination,” he said.NHK said the injured workers were in the process of cooling a nuclear reactor at the plant by injecting water into its core.
Earlier Saturday Japan’s nuclear agency said workers were continuing efforts to cool fuel rods at the plant after a small amount of radioactive material escaped into the air.The agency said there was a strong possibility that the radioactive cesium monitors detected was caused by the melting of a fuel rod at the plant, adding that engineers were continuing to cool the fuel rods by pumping water around them.A spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Agency earlier said atomic material had seeped out of one of the five nuclear reactors at the Daiichi plant, located about 160 miles (260 kilometers) north of Tokyo.Authorities evacuated people living near the reactor after an earthquake and tsunami crippled cooling systems there, as well as at another of the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s nuclear plants.The evacuations notwithstanding, the nuclear safety agency asserted Saturday that the radiation at the plants did not pose an immediate threat to nearby residents’ health, the Kyodo News Agency said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Friday on its website that the quake and tsunami knocked out a Daiichi reactor’s off-site power source, which is used to cool down the radioactive material inside. Then, the tsunami waves disabled the backup source — diesel generators — and authorities were working to get these operating.

On Saturday Japanese nuclear authorities said the cooling system had also failed at three of the four reactors at the Fukushima Daini plant — located in another town in northeaster Japan’s Fukushima prefecture.

Janie Eudy told CNN that her 52-year-old husband, Joe, was working at the Daiichi plant and was injured by falling and shattering glass when the quake struck. As he and others were planning to evacuate, at their managers’ orders, the tsunami waves struck and washed buildings from the nearby town past the plant.

“To me, it sounded like hell on earth,” she said, adding her husband — a native of Pinevlle, Louisiana — ultimately escaped.

The power company reported Saturday that about 1 million households were without power, and that power shortages may occur due to damage at the company’s facility.
“We kindly ask our customers to cooperate with us in reducing usage of power,” the company said.

Japanese Government Urges Calm Following Explosion at Nuclear Plant
A Japanese government spokesman has urged for calm following an explosion at one of two nuclear plants damaged in Friday’s massive earthquake.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano says authorities are monitoring radiation levels at Fukushima, where smoke could be seen billowing out of the nuclear plant complex. Japanese media say radiation levels are more than eight times normal outside the plant.

He urged people to follow earlier orders to evacuate the area 10 kilometers around the plant.

Before the explosion occurred, authorities said radioactive material had been found outside one of the plant’s reactors, which had lost power and cooling abilities following the magnitude 8.9 quake and tsunami.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said 50,000 troops would join rescue and recovery efforts across the country.

Japanese media report more than 1,200 people are dead or missing.

Entire villages were washed away Friday by waves as high as 10 meters that carried vehicles, buildings and debris several kilometers inland. The earthquake and tsunami damaged highways and other infrastructure, further hampering rescuers’ efforts to reach people stranded on their roofs and trapped in affected areas.

Japan’s Tepco electric company is warning of massive power outages in the coming days across large areas of the country.

Japanese authorities said 200 to 300 bodies have been found in Sendai, the city closest to the quake, which was the most powerful on record to hit Japan and the world’s fifth largest in more than a century. They say 700 people are missing and 1,000 people have been injured.

Northeast of Sendai, fires raged through the night Friday in Kesennuma, a town of 70,000 people. A large fire also erupted at an oil refinery in Ichihara, near Tokyo.

In Tokyo, the quake forced a suspension of all train and subway services, leaving millions of people stranded. Several airports were also closed, but some, including Tokyo’s Narita have reopened.

Japan’s fears mount with nuclear plant blast
latimes.com
Japan’s fears mount with nuclear plant blast
The Fukushima power plant’s cooling system failed after Friday’s massive earthquake. Residents flee the area. Nationwide, the death toll from the quake and tsunami could top 1,600.
By Mark Magnier, Barbara Demick and Carol J. Williams

Los Angeles Times

1:31 AM PST, March 12, 2011

Reporting from Tokyo and Beijing —

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Fears of a radiation leak intensified Saturday after an explosion at a nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan that had been damaged a day earlier by a tsunami and earthquake.

The walls of a building at the Fukushima power plant were blown off in the blast, leaving only a skeletal frame. Officials said four workers at the site received non-life-threatening injuries.

At least one reactor at the plant was already showing signs of a partial meltdown. Friday’s magnitude 8.9 earthquake had prevented the plant 150 miles north of Tokyo from powering its water cooling system.

Photos: Scenes from the earthquake

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano in a press conference shortly after the explosion, which left the facility shrouded in plumes of gray smoke, said experts were still determining what caused the blast.

“We are doing everything to ensure the safety of residents living nearby,” said Edano, the government’s chief spokesman. “I’m sure residents [living nearby] are feeling unease.

People were reportedly fleeing the surrounding area and Japanese television was urging people to cover their faces with wet towels and not to expose any skin to the potentially contaminated air. An evacuation was ordered for area within a six-mile radius of the plant.

Videos of the earthquake

Earlier in the day, workers had been racing to prevent one of the reactors from over-heating by releasing accumulated vapor.

Officials of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency insisted that the “slightly radioactive” emissions release posed no risk to people or the environment. Radiation levels inside the overheated reactor housing were 1,000 times normal, the agency said, but only eight times normal background at the plant’s main gate. Experts explained that the steam carries low-level radiation that rapidly dissipates.

The radiation scare comes on a day most of Japan was still trying to recover from its most punishing earthquake on record.

The Kyodo News Agency said the death toll could top 1,600 or more with countless still missing under rubble and muddy debris.

The force of the magnitude of Frida’s quake, which seismologists said released 1,000 times the energy of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, broke the foundations under homes and buildings and opened chasms in fields and pavement, swallowing cars and shearing off sidewalks and driveways.

More than 100 aftershocks have jolted Japan since Friday’s 2:46 p.m. temblor, including at least a dozen of magnitude 6 or higher, said Dave Applegate, a senior advisor at the U.S. Geological Survey.

The earthquake, centered just off the northeastern coastal city of Sendai, was the most powerful since a December 2004 quake and ensuing tsunami killed 230,000 people in Indian Ocean nations.

The havoc unleashed on Japan just ahead of Friday rush hour has left the nation mired in fear, suffering and hardship. Millions of people are without power, utility officials said, and they warned that outages would continue through the weekend, with rolling blackouts persisting for weeks.

Four trains carrying passengers along the coast at the time of the quake remain unaccounted for, East Japan Railway Co. reported. Only half of the hundreds of people reported trapped in elevators were rescued overnight, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

Key rail lines remained idle for a second day because of damaged track, tunnels and bridges. Service on Tokyo’s vaunted subway system, the world’s busiest with 8 million passengers per day, was sharply reduced pending safety inspections.

Limited air traffic resumed at major airports, including Tokyo’s Narita International, but most were thronged by travelers marooned after major airlines suspended flights.

Steven Nia, a Los Angeles businessman heading for a flight home at the airport, said he slept the night in the terminal.

“I’m from California, so I recognize what an earthquake is, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Nia said.

Tokyo Bay, one of the busiest harbors in the world, was eerily quiet Saturday afternoon. Ships, barges and fishing boats sat idle in the still waters. The freeway across the bay was empty.

At Tokyo’s railway station, hordes of people were making their way home after spending the night stranded in the capital.

Kenji Higuchi, 43, manager at the radio communications provider Japan Enix Co., said he spent the night monitoring and inspecting wireless base stations across Tokyo and slept in his office. He had to jostle for 10 minutes with throngs trying to board suburban trains just to get on the platform, he said.

“The images of destruction and flooding coming out of Japan are simply heartbreaking,” President Obama told a news conference at the White House. He said the U.S. aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan was heading toward Japan to join the U.S. 7th Fleet’s command ship, Blue Ridge, in the massive global relief effort.

Obama said he had spoken with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to extend condolences and “offered our Japanese friends whatever assistance is needed.”

At least 45 countries scrambled disaster-relief teams, including 68 search-and-rescue units that were awaiting the Japanese government’s direction on where to deploy, said Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. A team of disaster responders sent to New Zealand by Tokyo after the Christchurch earthquake last month rushed back to help their devastated homeland.

The Defense Ministry said about 20,000 Self-Defense Forces troops, 190 aircraft and 25 vessels had been dispatched Saturday to the area around Sendai, where tsunami waves a day earlier churned whole neighborhoods into debris, crashing through homes and businesses and sweeping trains, trucks and cars into the moving mass of destruction.

Ministry officials were working with the Pentagon on plans to use U.S. naval forces to move 250 rescue vehicles into areas rendered unapproachable by waves that washed away roads and rail lines.

About 69,000 people were stranded at Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea because of road damage and idled mass transit. Theme park workers gave out blankets, heaters and coats to visitors forced to camp outside in 30-degree temperatures.

“Rations and supplies are just starting to reach emergency shelters,” said Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, dressed in the light-blue jacket that identifies disaster-relief workers.

Images from the coastal city of Soma taken from a TV network helicopter showed trees that had been uprooted by the tsunami and then dragged back to shore when the waters receded.

Video taken over Kesennuma, in Miyagi prefecture, where the quake was most destructive, captured a Self-Defense Forces helicopter swooping low over a neighborhood to pluck a survivor from one of the few rooftops still above water.

In Iwanuma, survivors taking refuge on top of Minamihama Chuo Hospital waved flags and umbrellas to signal for help. All around them were water and the debris of buildings.

At Sendai airport, a small private jet appeared to have been carried by the rushing waters and left partly buried in waterlogged rubble. Most of the runway was under water.

Crews labored through the night to dig out trucks and cars that had fallen into chasms in roads and highways. At a Machida district shopping center in Tokyo, the ramp of a parking lot had collapsed, and workers with cranes were searching for people in the wreckage. One person pried from the rubble was unconscious and in critical condition.

“More than 90% of the houses in three coastal communities have been washed away by tsunami,” a municipal official in the town of Futaba told the Kyodo News Agency. He said from his vantage point on the fourth floor of the town hall, “I see no houses standing.”

Prime Minister Kan visited the stricken nuclear facility in a tour of the disaster areas. He vowed to “make whatever decisions need to be made” as he boarded a helicopter for the aerial tour.

Japan’s nuclear facilities have survived many earthquakes. But the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility, the world’s largest, was forced to close for two years in 2007 after being hit by an earthquake of greater force than the plant was designed to withstand. And Japan has a record of cover-ups when it comes to nuclear accidents. In 2007, the operators of the Shika plant acknowledged they had failed to report a 15-minute uncontrollable nuclear chain reaction eight years earlier. Another operator was forced to close 17 plants temporarily in 2003 after admitting it falsified safety inspection reports.

Japanese Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said the government would tap a contingency fund to cope with the massive damage, according to Kyodo New Agency.

Japan is already facing some of the highest public debt of any industrialized nation, running at about 200% of its annual economic output.

“To be honest I’m worried about the economy in the short term,” said Kazu Hoshiai, 43, a Japan Airlines worker. “We are accustomed to earthquakes but not like this one.”

Photos: Scenes from the earthquake

barbara.demick@latimes.com

mark.magnier@latimes.com

carol.williams@latimes.com

Magnier and Demick reported from Tokyo and Williams from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Kenji Hall in Tokyo and Times staff writers Bruce Wallace and Brady MacDonald in Los Angeles and David Pierson in Beijing contributed to this report. Benjamin Haas in the Times’ Beijing bureau also contributed to this report.

WRAPUP 12-Radiation leaking from Japan’s quake-hit nuclear plant

FUKUSHIMA, Japan, March 12 (Reuters) – Radiation leaked from
an unstable Japanese nuclear reactor north of Tokyo on Saturday,
the government said, after an explosion blew the roof off the
facility in the wake of a massive earthquake. The developments raised fears of a disastrous meltdown at
the plant, which was damaged by Friday’s 8.9-magnitude
earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in Japan. “We are looking into the cause and the situation and we’ll
make that public when we have further information,” Chief
Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. Edano said an evacuation radius of 10 km (6 miles) from the
stricken 40-year-old Daiichi 1 reactor plant in Fukushima
prefecture was adequate. TV footage showed vapour rising from
the plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo. The quake sent a 10-metre (33-foot) tsunami ripping through
towns and cities across the northeast coast. Japanese media
estimate that at least 1,300 people were killed. The blast came as plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co
(TEPCO) worked desperately to reduce pressures in the
core of the reactor. “An unchecked rise in temperature could cause the core to
essentially turn into a molten mass that could burn through the
reactor vessel,” risk information service Stratfor said in a
report before the explosion. “This may lead to a release of an
unchecked amount of radiation into the containment building that
surrounds the reactor.” NHK television and Jiji said the outer structure of the
building that houses the reactor appeared to have blown off,
which could suggest the containment building had already been
breached. Earlier the operator released what it said was a tiny amount
of radioactive steam to reduce the pressure and the danger was
minimal because tens of thousands of people had already been
evacuated from the vicinity. Reuters journalists were in Fukushima prefecture, about 70
km (40 miles) from the plant. Other media have reported police
roadblocks in the area to prevent people getting closer.

Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology
said the earth’s axis shifted 25 cm as a result of the quake and
the U.S. Geological Survey said the main island of Japan had
shifted 2.4 metres. Friday’s tremor was so huge that thousands fled their homes
from coastlines around the Pacific Rim, as far away as North and
South America, fearful of a tsunami. Most appeared to have been spared anything more serious than
some high waves, unlike Japan’s northeast coastline which was
hammered by the huge tsunami that turned houses and ships into
floating debris as it surged into cities and villages, sweeping
aside everything in its path. “I thought I was going to die,” said Wataru Fujimura, a
38-year-old sales representative in Koriyama, Fukushima, north
of Tokyo and close to the area worst hit by the quake. “Our furniture and shelves had all fallen over and there
were cracks in the apartment building, so we spent the whole
night in the car … Now we’re back home trying to clean.” The unfolding natural disaster, which has been followed by
dozens of aftershocks, prompted offers of search and rescue help
from 50 countries. The central bank said it would cut short a two-day policy
review scheduled for next week to one day on Monday and promised
to do its utmost to ensure financial market stability.
The disaster struck as the world’s third-largest economy had
been showing signs of reviving from an economic contraction in
the final quarter of last year. It raised the prospect of major
disruptions for many key businesses and a massive repair bill
running into tens of billions of dollars. In one of the worst-hit residential areas, people buried
under rubble could be heard calling out for rescue, Kyodo news
agency reported. TV footage showed staff at one hospital waving
banners with the words “FOOD” and “HELP” from a rooftop. The airport in coastal city Sendai, home to one million
people, was on fire, Japanese media said. TV footage from Friday showed a black torrent of water
carrying cars and wrecked homes at high speed across farmland
near Sendai, 300 km (180 miles) northeast of Tokyo. Ships had
been flung onto a harbour wharf, where they lay helplessly. The earthquake was the fifth most powerful to hit the world
in the past century. It surpassed the Great Kant quake of Sept.
1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than
140,000 people in the Tokyo area. The 1995 Kobe quake caused $100 billion in damage and was
the most expensive natural disaster in history.
Snap analysis: Japan may have hours to prevent nuclear meltdown
Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) (9501.T) is racing to cool down the reactor core after a highly unusual “station blackout” — the total loss of power necessary to keep water circulating through the plant to prevent overheating.

Daiichi Units 1, 2 and 3 reactors shut down automatically at 2:46 p.m. local time due to the earthquake. But about an hour later, the on-site diesel back-up generators also shut, leaving the reactors without alternating current (AC) power.

That caused Tepco to declare an emergency and the government to evacuate thousands of people from near the plant. Such a blackout is “one of the most serious conditions that can affect a nuclear plant,” according to experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S. based nuclear watchdog group.”If all AC power is lost, the options to cool the core are limited,” the group warned.TEPCO also said it has lost ability to control pressure at some of the reactors at its Daini plant nearby.The reactors at Fukushima can operate without AC power because they are steam-driven and therefore do not require electric pumps, but the reactors do require direct current (DC) power from batteries for its valves and controls to function.If battery power is depleted before AC power is restored, the plant would stop supplying water to the core and the cooling water level in the reactor core could drop.

RADIATION RELEASE

Officials are now considering releasing some radiation to relieve pressure in the containment at the Daiichi plant and are also considering releasing pressure at Daini, signs that difficulties are mounting. Such a release has only occurred once in U.S. history, at Three Mile Island.”(It’s) a sign that the Japanese are pulling out all the stops they can to prevent this accident from developing into a core melt and also prevent it from causing a breach of the containment (system) from the pressure that is building up inside the core because of excess heat,” said Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.While the restoration of power through additional generators should allow TEPCO to bring the situation back under control, left unchecked the coolant could boil off within hours. That would cause the core to overheat and damage the fuel, according to nuclear experts familiar with the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979.It could take hours more for the metal surrounding the ceramic uranium fuel pellets in the fuel rods to melt, which is what happened at Three Mile Island. That accident essentially frozen the nuclear industry for three decades.Seven years later the industry suffered another blow after the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine exploded due to an uncontrolled power surge that damaged the reactor core, releasing a radioactive cloud that blanketed Europe.

The metal on the fuel rods would not melt until temperatures far exceed 1,000 degrees F. The ceramic uranium pellets would not melt until temperatures reached about 2,000 degrees F, nuclear experts said.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) (9501.T) is racing to cool down the reactor core after a highly unusual “station blackout” — the total loss of power necessary to keep water circulating through the plant to prevent overheating.Daiichi Units 1, 2 and 3 reactors shut down automatically at 2:46 p.m. local time due to the earthquake. But about an hour later, the on-site diesel back-up generators also shut, leaving the reactors without alternating current (AC) power.That caused Tepco to declare an emergency and the government to evacuate thousands of people from near the plant. Such a blackout is “one of the most serious conditions that can affect a nuclear plant,” according to experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S. based nuclear watchdog group.”If all AC power is lost, the options to cool the core are limited,” the group warned.TEPCO also said it has lost ability to control pressure at some of the reactors at its Daini plant nearby.The reactors at Fukushima can operate without AC power because they are steam-driven and therefore do not require electric pumps, but the reactors do require direct current (DC) power from batteries for its valves and controls to function. If battery power is depleted before AC power is restored, the plant would stop supplying water to the core and the cooling water level in the reactor core could drop.

RADIATION RELEASE

Officials are now considering releasing some radiation to relieve pressure in the containment at the Daiichi plant and are also considering releasing pressure at Daini, signs that difficulties are mounting. Such a release has only occurred once in U.S. history, at Three Mile Island.”(It’s) a sign that the Japanese are pulling out all the stops they can to prevent this accident from developing into a core melt and also prevent it from causing a breach of the containment (system) from the pressure that is building up inside the core because of excess heat,” said Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.While the restoration of power through additional generators should allow TEPCO to bring the situation back under control, left unchecked the coolant could boil off within hours. That would cause the core to overheat and damage the fuel, according to nuclear experts familiar with the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979.It could take hours more for the metal surrounding the ceramic uranium fuel pellets in the fuel rods to melt, which is what happened at Three Mile Island. That accident essentially frozen the nuclear industry for three decades.Seven years later the industry suffered another blow after the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine exploded due to an uncontrolled power surge that damaged the reactor core, releasing a radioactive cloud that blanketed Europe.The metal on the fuel rods would not melt until temperatures far exceed 1,000 degrees F. The ceramic uranium pellets would not melt until temperatures reached about 2,000 degrees F, nuclear experts said.

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