Alarm over nuclear plant fuel rods
The operator of Japan's tsunami-flooded nuclear power complex is seeking ways to pull damaged spent fuel rods out of a storage pool at one of its reactors, citing surging radiation and elevated temperatures as worrisome signs.
The troubling signals at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex come as frustrations grow with Tokyo Electric Power's handling of the crisis since the March 11 tsunami swamped the plant, knocking out crucial cooling systems. Restoring them will take months.
Frequent aftershocks from the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that triggered the monstrous waves are unwelcome reminders of the disaster and are impeding work on the cooling systems.
The government earlier this week revised its rating of the severity of the crisis to level seven, the worst possible on an international scale. The only other level seven was the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, though that explosion released 10 times the radioactivity that has come from Fukushima Dai-ichi so far.
Tepco officials said on Wednesday they were discussing ways to eventually remove spent fuel rods from storage pools as the plant is closed down for good.
The issue appeared most urgent at the No 4 reactor, which was shut down for maintenance at the time of the tsunami, with all the spent fuel rods moved from its core. Company officials said they were considering ways to remove the fuel rods for permanent storage, but must first devise ways to reduce radiation leaking from the pool.
Police say the earthquake and tsunami killed 13,439 people and left 14,867 missing. The number of missing has risen in recent days as local police in some devastated communities belatedly reported to higher authorities.
Meanwhile, hundreds of police in white protective suits are hunting for bodies in the rubble outside the nuclear plant - searching for the first time within a six-mile radius around the radiation-leaking complex.
Police said that falling radiation levels have allowed them to search within a narrower radius around Fukushima Dai-ichi than before. But they are working very carefully to avoid tearing their protective gear.
Police believe the area may contain 1,000 bodies of missing victims from the March 11 tsunami. Overall on the north-eastern coast, at least 13,400 people were killed and more than 14,800 are listed as missing.