Japan earthquake: ‘This is not Chernobyl’ vows Japan as radiation fears grow
Japan was battling a mounting nuclear crisis yesterday as officials desperately tried to ensure that fuel rods in damaged reactors did not overheat, risking an explosion that could release more radioactive material into the air.
Some officials fear the fuel rods could melt the containers that house the reactor cores. By last night there were concerns over four separate nuclear plants, one of them just 75 miles from Tokyo.
At the Fukushima No 1 power plant, where the roof of one building was blown off by a blast, workers were last night pumping sea water into a third reactor to release a build-up of pressure. Officials were also monitoring the Fukushima No 2 plant nearby.
Meanwhile a spokesman for Japan Atomic Power Company said the cooling system at the Tokai nuclear power plant near Tokyo had failed, although other systems were ensuring that the temperature of the reactor was still falling.
In another dispiriting sign, authorities in Tokyo told the UN nuclear watchdog that the lowest state of emergency has been reported by the operator at the Onagawa nuclear power plant.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement: “The alert was declared as a consequence of radioactivity readings exceeding allowed levels in the area surrounding the plant. Japanese authorities are investigating the source of radiation.”
Prime Minister Naoto Kan was at pains to emphasise that “this is fundamentally different from the Chernobyl accident”.
As workers race to control the potential overheating, anywhere between 170,000 and 200,000 people living close to a number of damaged reactors north of Tokyo have already been evacuated. Some were taken to Koriyama, where fire brigade crews in ‘haz-mat’ suits were carrying out radiation tests at an emergency centre set up outside a gymnasium.
While the government doubled the number of soldiers deployed in the aid effort to 100,000 and sent 120,000 blankets, 120,000 bottles of water and 29,000 gallons of petrol, the prime minister said it would take days to restore electricity supplies. In the meantime, it is to be rationed with rolling blackouts in several cities, including Tokyo.
At the Sogu Gym in Koriyama, men and women, the elderly and babies carried by their parents were led one by one towards the crews clad in white suits and masks. Everyone wanted to know just two things: had they been exposed to radiation, and if so by how much.
Reports said the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency had confirmed that 160 people living close to the Fukushima Daiichi plant may have been exposed.
“I am worried about the radiation. My house is around 20km from one of the plants,” said Tomoko Karaki, a 29-year-old English teacher from Minamisoma, as she waited her turn to be tested.
Like everyone in the queue, Ms Karaki may have been concerned and inwardly frightened but she refused to display any outward sign of panic. “My mother, father and brother are all worried,” she added. “The government told us to leave the town. We trust the government but some of the information has been slow to come.”
The nuclear accident, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986, has triggered criticism that authorities were ill-prepared to tackle the threat caused by a massive quake.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said there might have been a partial meltdown of the fuel rods at the No 1 reactor at Fukushima. Engineers were pumping in sea water, trying to prevent the same happening at the No 3 reactor — a tacit acknowledgement that they had moved too slowly on Saturday. “Unlike the No 1 reactor, we ventilated and injected water at an early stage,” he said in Tokyo.
In Koriyama, one of the fire brigade members at the radiation testing centre said up to 1,500 people had come to be checked. The man, who declined to be named, said 200 or 300 of the people had been subsequently sent to a local hospital.
“If we get a reading above the safe limit we are showering people down. We then wait for the reading to drop and send them to hospital,” he said. Asked how bad he believed the situation was, he replied: “It is as the government says. This is not Chernobyl.”
Robin Grimes, director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at London's Imperial College, said: “There's no risk of an extensive radiation leak into the surrounding areas.
“The worst-case scenario is it's just going to be more difficult to clean up. What's clear because of the incidental radiation being released is that the structure of the core is probably still intact.”