SENDAI, Japan —
Japanese authorities embarked on desperate new measures to avert full-scale meltdowns at a quake-battered nuclear plant Thursday, dispatching helicopters to drop tons of water on the reactors and readying water cannons to cool a spent-fuel pool that an American official said was responsible for “very significant radiation levels.”
At the same time, public anger mounted over the government’s lagging efforts to provide relief for the survivors of last week’s earthquake and tsunami.
U.S. and Japanese officials appeared to disagree on the magnitude of the nuclear crisis, as the White House recommended Wednesday that American citizens remain at least 50 miles away from the stricken plant, much farther than the 12-mile evacuation radius given by the Japanese government.
The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., planned to use the water cannons, normally used for crowd control, to try to douse the overheated and possibly dry spent-fuel pool at the No. 4 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, about 150 miles north of Tokyo. Without cooling, the spent rods could emit dangerous levels of radiation. Japan’s defense minister said the U.S. military also was sending pumps to help inject water into the reactors.
The power company also was racing to install a new power line to the plant. The failure of primary power systems and backup generators that were swamped by the tsunami six days earlier has contributed to the escalating crisis.
At midmorning, military helicopters began dumping water on two of the damaged reactors, but after four flybys, the operation was suspended, public broadcaster NHK reported, citing defense officials. A day earlier, gusting winds and high radiation levels also forced the military to scrap the water drops.
Confusion persisted as to what was actually happening inside the plant’s six reactors.
Japan’s Kyodo News service, citing government sources, reported that the U.S. military would deploy unmanned, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft to take images of the building that houses the No. 4 reactor to determine the status of its spent-fuel pool.
Unquestionably, the situation is dire. The units housing the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 reactors have all been hit by explosions, and their radioactive cores have begun to at least partially melt down, authorities have acknowledged. Fires broke out for two days running in the building housing the No. 4 reactor, and temperatures have been rising in Nos. 5 and 6.
In Washington, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said at a congressional hearing that all of the water had evaporated from the spent-fuel pool at the No. 4 reactor. Japanese officials contended Thursday that military spotters had confirmed from the air that there was still water in the pool.
Acting on Jaczko’s advice, the White House made its recommendation that U.S. citizens keep 50 miles or more away.
Jaczko told lawmakers that the 50-mile evacuation radius was based largely on concerns about the spent-fuel pool, which is believed to be seriously damaged and responsible for “very significant radiation levels likely around the site.” The pool, which contains an estimated 125 tons of uranium fuel pellets, is not enclosed in a containment vessel, and if the pellets start burning, radiation will escape directly into the environment.
If the backup efforts to cool the reactors were to fail, “it would be very difficult for the emergency workers to get near the reactors. The doses they could experience would potentially be lethal doses in a very short period of time,” Jaczko said. “That is a very significant development.”
The nuclear crisis is vastly complicating quake relief efforts as well as search-and-rescue operations, including those involving the American military. U.S. forces in Japan were also observing a 50-mile no-go zone around the damaged plant. Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan described the prohibition as a precaution and said exceptions could be made with authorization.
Inside the crippled plant, emergency workers, wearing protective gear and doing short shifts to limit their radiation exposure, have been pumping seawater into the reactors to try to cool them. The work is hard and perilous and, among many Japanese, the workers have taken on the status of folk heroes.
“They’re our last line of defense, and they are in there trying to control the situation ... a really, really dangerous situation,” said Kazuo Enomoto, who grows vegetables outside Tokyo.
Authorities have raised the maximum radiation dose allowed for the workers in an effort to avoid having to abruptly order them to abandon their posts, as happened Wednesday. About 180 workers were back at the site Thursday.
Since the magnitude 9 quake and the massive tsunami it spawned, damage and malfunctions at the Daiichi plant have spiraled rapidly. The situation at times has seemed to be spinning out of control. Many Japanese do not have confidence in their government either to solve the crisis or to be forthcoming about the danger to public health.
“I want to know that this nuclear situation is safe, and that it’s solved quickly,” said Toshiko Sugiyama, a 37-year-old businessman living near the affected area. Public alarm has grown by the day, spurred by the government’s release of often-contradictory and vague information.
Frustrated over the lack of information, Yukiya Amano, chief of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, planned to arrive in Japan on Thursday to carry out an assessment.
The crisis has threatened to overshadow the massive humanitarian needs brought on by the quake and tsunami, and officials of the hardest-hit communities _ abandoning customary discretion _ are beginning to make unusually harsh public statements about the central government’s ineffective relief efforts. The governor of Fukushima prefecture, Yuhei Sato, told NHK that the anger and anxiety of those in the earthquake zone had reached a “boiling point.”
Food, water, medicine and electricity are all in short supply, a shocking turn of events for citizens of one of the world’s most affluent and advanced societies. And nearly a week after the double blow of quake and tsunami, many people don’t know the fate of loved ones. Thousands are still missing.
The government’s main spokesman, chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, acknowledged that aid efforts had not been meeting needs. But, appearing Thursday on television, he told Japanese to contact local government officials if they wanted to send supplies to the quake zone, not to try to deliver anything themselves. “We want to remain flexible, but also want to avoid chaos,” he said.
In the flooded town of Ishinomaki, Mikio Watanabe has been unable to search for family members. “We can’t really go anywhere with all this water,” Watanabe said. “We’re very worried. We want to search, but there’s no gasoline, electricity, running water or cell phones _ it feels like you’re dying.”
On Wednesday, the Obama administration said it would charter aircraft to help U.S. citizens who wish to leave the country, and it offered a voluntary evacuation to family members and dependents of U.S. personnel in Tokyo and Yokohama, according to The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Britain urged its nationals to not only leave the quake zone but flee the capital, Tokyo.
Officials planned to send buses north to the quake- and tsunami-affected area to bring out any British citizens, and said their nationals in the capital should consider leaving _ not necessarily for health reasons but because of “potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure.”
In the mega-city of Tokyo, many people still go stoically about their morning commute, but few venture outside once arriving at the office. Slightly elevated radiation levels were detected in the city earlier this week, though not high enough to affect human health, authorities said.
Surgical masks, usually worn in Japan only by people suffering from colds and allergies, have become part of the workaday uniform, as much as drab business suits or prim dresses and pumps, even though they are of dubious value in protecting against radiation.
Magnier reported from Sendai and King from Tokyo. Hall, a special correspondent, reported from Tokyo. Special correspondent Yuri Nagano in Tokyo contributed to this report. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.