Helicopters Dump Water To Cool Reactor In Japan - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

@ This Hour: U.S. Charters Planes To Help Its Citizens Leave Japan

This picture, released from Tokyo Electric Power Co. on Wednesday, shows damaged No.3 and No. 4 reactors at the Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Fukushima This picture, released from Tokyo Electric Power Co. on Wednesday, shows damaged No.3 and No. 4 reactors at the Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Fukushima

UPDATE>>> Airlines scrambled to fly thousands of passengers out of Tokyo on Thursday as fears about Japan's nuclear crisis mounted and the United States joined other nations urging their citizens to consider leaving.

The U.S. authorized the first evacuations of Americans out of Japan and warned U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to any part of the country as unpredictable weather and wind conditions risked spreading radioactive contamination.

The State Department said the government had chartered aircraft to help Americans leave Japan and had authorized the voluntary departure of family members of diplomatic staff in Tokyo, Nagoya and Yokohama — about 600 people.

President Barack Obama placed a telephone call to Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Wednesday to discuss Japan's efforts to recover from last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami, and the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant . Obama promised Kan that the U.S. would offer constant support for its close friend and ally, and "expressed his extraordinary admiration for the character and resolve of the Japanese people," the White House said.

But a hastily organized teleconference late Wednesday with officials from the State and Energy Departments underscored the administration's concerns. The travel warning extends to U.S. citizens already in the country and urges them to consider leaving.

Senior State Department official Patrick Kennedy said chartered planes will be brought in to help private American citizens wishing to leave. People face less risk in southern Japan, but changing weather and wind conditions could raise radiation levels elsewhere in the coming days, he said.

Dependents have not been ordered to leave, but if they choose to the State Department will bear the expense of their transportation, NBC News reported.

This is the lowest step on our hierarchy," Kennedy said.

A message from U.S. Ambassador John Roos urged "as a precaution" that American citizens who live within 50 miles of the Fukushima complex to evacuate the area or to take shelter indoors if safe evacuation is not practical.

The State Department set up an e-mail address — japanemergencyusc@state.gov — at which Americans could seek help leaving the country.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said it will coordinate departures for eligible Defense Department dependents.

As an increasing number of governments from Britain to South Korea advised their citizens to leave and avoid unnecessary travel to Japan, there was a sharp drop in demand to fly to Japan coupled with a rush to leave.

The decision to begin evacuations mirrors moves by countries such as Australia and Germany, who also advised their citizens to consider leaving Tokyo and other earthquake-affected areas. Tokyo, which is about 170 miles from the stricken nuclear complex, has reported slightly elevated radiation levels, though Japanese officials have said the increase was too small to threaten the 39 million people in and around the capital.

"Based on scientific evidence there is absolutely no reason to leave Tokyo," Noriyuki Shikata, Japan's deputy Cabinet secretary for public relations, told NBC News on Thursday.

'Catastrophe'
France has also advised its citizens in Japan to get out or head to southern Japan. The French embassy in Tokyo said it had asked Air France to prepare planes for the evacuation of French nationals from Japan.

French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet called the situation in Japan a "catastrophe."

Hong Kong's government also told its citizens in Tokyo to leave as soon as possible Thursday.

Some governments have started testing their citizens returning from Japan for radiation levels.

South Korea has set up residual radiation detection gates at Incheon and Gimpo international airports that have direct flights to Japan, the South's Yonhap news agency reported.

The government plans to set up similar monitoring at the port of Busan for people coming back on ferries, according to Vice Science Minister Kim Chang-kyung.

Airlines did not provide much information on passenger loads in and out of Japan, but some travelers reported nearly one-way traffic by passengers eager to leave the country. Japan-bound travels said their flights were nearly empty.

Private jet companies said they were inundated with requests for help with evacuation.

Scores of flights to Japan were halted or rerouted this week on fears of radiation leaks from the stricken nuclear plant.

BREAKING UPDATE>> The United States on Wednesday authorized the first evacuations of Americans out of Japan, taking a tougher stand on the deepening nuclear crisis and warning U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to any part of the country as unpredictable weather and wind conditions risked spreading radioactive contamination.

President Barack Obama placed a telephone call to Prime Minister Naoto Kan to discuss Japan's efforts to recover from last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami, and the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-chi plant. Obama promised Kan that the U.S. would offer constant support for its close friend and ally.

But a hastily organized teleconference with officials from the State and Energy Departments underscored the administration's concerns. The travel warning extends to U.S. citizens already in the country and urges them to consider leaving. The authorized departure offers voluntary evacuation to family members and dependents of U.S. personnel in Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya and affects some 600 people.

Senior State Department official Patrick Kennedy said chartered planes will be brought in to help private American citizens wishing to leave. People face less risk in southern Japan, but changing weather and wind conditions could raise radiation levels elsewhere in the coming days, he said.

Dependents have not been ordered to leave, but if they choose to the State Department bears the expense of their transportation, NBC News reported.

"This is the lowest step on our hierarchy," Kennedy said.

A message from U.S. Ambassador John Roos on Thursday urged "as a precaution" that American citizens who live within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant to evacuate the area or to take shelter indoors if safe evacuation is not practical.

The State Department set up an e-mail address — japanemergencyusc@state.gov — at which Americans could seek help leaving the country.

BREAKING UPDATE>>>  Japanese military helicopters dumped loads of seawater onto a stricken nuclear reactor Thursday, trying to avoid full meltdowns as plant operators said they were close to finishing a new power line that could restore cooling systems and ease the crisis.

U.S. officials in Washington, meanwhile, warned that the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in northeastern Japan may be on the verge of spewing more radioactive material because water was gone from a storage pool that keeps spent nuclear fuel rods from overheating.

The troubles at several of the plant's reactors were set off when last week's earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and ruined backup generators needed for their cooling systems, adding a major nuclear crisis for Japan as it dealt with twin natural disasters that killed more than 10,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

A Japanese military CH-47 Chinook helicopter began dumping seawater on the damaged reactor of Unit 3 at the Fukushima complex at 9:48 a.m., said defense ministry spokeswoman Kazumi Toyama. The aircraft dumped at least four loads on the reactor, though much of the water appeared to be dispersed in the wind.

The dumping is intended both to help cool the reactor and to replenish water in a pool holding spent fuel rods, Toyama said. The plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said earlier that the pool was nearly empty, which might cause the rods to overheat.

The comments from U.S. officials indicated there were similar problems at another unit of the Dai-ichi complex.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said at a congressional hearing in Washington that all the water was gone from a separate spent fuel pool at the plant's Unit 4. Japanese officials expressed similar worries about that unit, but that it was impossible to be sure of its status.

Emergency workers were forced to retreat from the plant Wednesday when radiation levels soared, losing precious time. They resumed work after radiation levels dropped, but much of the monitoring equipment in the plant is inoperable, complicating efforts to assess the situation.

"We are afraid that the water level at unit 4 is the lowest," said Hikaru Kuroda, facilities management official at Tokyo Electric Power Co. But he added, "Because we cannot get near it, the only way to monitor the situation is visually from far away."

The storage pools need a constant source of cooling water. Even when removed from reactors, the rods retain radioactivity and must be cooled for months, possibly longer, to prevent them from posing a threat of meltdown.

Japanese officials raised hopes of easing the crisis earlier Thursday, saying that they may be close to bringing power back to the plant and restoring the reactors' cooling systems.

The new power line would revive electric-powered pumps, allowing the company to control the rising temperatures and pressure that have led to at least partial meltdowns in three reactors. The company is also trying to repair its existing disabled power line.

Tokyo Electric Power spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said the new power line to the plant is almost finished and that officials plan to try it "as soon as possible," but he could not say exactly when.

Reflecting the state of alarm over the issue, Japan's 77-year-old emperor expressed deep concern in a rare unexpected television broadcast on Wednesday, saying "I hope things will not get worse."

He urged the Japanese to care for each other and not give up hope. Millions of lives were disrupted by the magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which are believed to have killed more than 10,000 people.

Nearly a week after the disaster, police said more than 452,000 were staying in schools and other shelters, as supplies of fuel, medicine and other necessities ran short. Both victims and aid workers appealed for more help.

More than 4,300 people are officially listed as dead, but officials believe the toll will climb to well over 10,000.

"There is enough food, but no fuel or gasoline," said Yuko Niuma, 46, as she stood looking out over Ofunato harbor, where trawlers were flipped on their sides.

The threat of nuclear disaster only added to Japanese misery and frustration.

The anxiety and anger being felt by people in Fukushima have reached a boiling point," the governor of Fukushima prefecture, Yuhei Sato, fumed in an interview with the Japanese television network NHK. He said evacuation preparations were inadequate, saying centers lacked enough hot meals and basic necessities.

Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from a 20 kilometer (13 mile) radius around Fukushima Dai-ichi.

A Cabinet spokesman, Noriyuki Shikata, said the government had no plans to expand the evacuation plan. But the U.S. Embassy issued an advisory urging all Americans living within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the plant to leave the area or at least remain indoors.

The chief of the U.N. nuclear agency, Yukiya Amano, said he would go to Japan to assess what he called a "very serious" situation and urged Tokyo to provide better information to his organization.

Other countries have complained that Japan has been too slow and vague in releasing details about its rapidly evolving crisis at the complex of six reactors along Japan's northeastern coast.

The 180 emergency workers who were working in shifts to manually pump seawater into the overheating reactors to cool them and stave off complete meltdowns were emerging as heroes as they persevered in circumstances in which no radiation suit could completely protect them.

Japan's health ministry made what it called an "unavoidable" change Wednesday, more than doubling the amount of radiation to which the workers can be legally exposed.

"I don't know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war," said Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor of the Department of Radiology at University of Tokyo Hospital.

The government asked special police units to bring in water cannons — usually used to quell rioters — to spray onto the spent fuel storage pool at unit 4.

"By deploying defense personnel and riot police, we're doing our best to tackle the situation by spraying water to cool down the reactors. We sincerely hope that this mission will go well," Shikata said.

Elevated levels of radiation were detected well outside the 20-mile (30-kilometer) emergency area around the plants. In Ibaraki prefecture, just south of Fukushima, officials said radiation levels were about 300 times normal levels by late Wednesday morning. It would take three years of constant exposure to these higher levels to raise a person's risk of cancer.

A little radiation has also been detected in Tokyo, triggering panic buying of food and water.

Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writers Elaine Kurtenbach and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo, David Stringer in Ofunato and Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.

BREAKING UPDATE>>> US to bring in chartered planes to help Americans leave Japan — Reuters

BREAKING UPDATE>>> Helicopters are dumping water on a stricken reactor in northeastern Japan to cool overheated fuel rods inside the core.

The crisis at several reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant were set off when last week's earthquake and tsunami knocked out power needed for their cooling systems and ruined backup generators.

Japanese officials struggling to avoid full meltdowns have raised hopes of easing the crisis, saying they may be close to bringing power back to the plant and restoring the cooling systems.     
 

BREAKING UPDATE>>>  The United States expressed increasing alarm Wednesday about the threat posed by Japan's nuclear crisis, with its top nuclear energy chief suggesting that one crippled reactor was in danger of a complete meltdown.

The U.S. urged Americans to evacuate a wider area around the plant. Other governments advised their citizens to leave the country altogether.

Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, painted a much bleaker picture of the situation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant than Japanese officials. He told a congressional hearing in Washington that all the water was gone from the spent fuel pools at Unit 4, one of six reactors at the complex.

"There is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures," he said.

Japanese officials denied that all the cooling water was gone. Hajime Motojuku, spokesman for plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., said the "condition is stable" at Unit 4.

If Jaczko is correct, it would mean there's nothing to stop the fuel rods from getting hotter and ultimately melting down. The outer shells of the rods could also ignite with enough force to propel the radioactive fuel inside over a wide area.

Jaczko did not say how the information was obtained, but the NRC and U.S. Department of Energy both have experts at the Fukushima complex along Japan's northeastern coast, which was ravaged by last week's magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

As international concern mounted, the chief of the U.N. nuclear agency said he would go to Japan to assess what he called a "serious" situation and urged Tokyo to provide better information to his organization.

Yukiya Amano of the International Atomic Energy Agency spoke of a "very serious" situation and said he would leave for Tokyo within a day.

He said it was "difficult to say" if events were out of control, but added, "I will certainly have contact with those people who are working there who tackled the accident, and I will be able to have firsthand information."

Japanese officials raised hopes of easing the crisis, saying early Thursday that they were close to completing a new power line that could restore the reactors' cooling systems.

Naoki Tsunoda, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, said the new power line to the plant was almost finished and that officials planned to try it "as soon as possible," but he could not say exactly when.

BREAKING UPDATE>>> Foreign countries advised their citizens to evacuate Japan as emergency workers struggled Wednesday to prevent a nuclear meltdown and radiation catastrophe at an earthquake-stricken power plant.

Workers withdrew briefly from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant because of surging radiation levels but returned after emissions dropped to safer levels.

Fear and confusion reigned as officials said a second nuclear reactor at the complex may have ruptured and released radioactive steam.

The European Union's energy chief, Guenther Oettinger, told the European Parliament that the plant was "effectively out of control" after breakdowns in the facility's cooling system.

"In the coming hours there could be further catastrophic events, which could pose a threat to the lives of people on the island," Oettinger said.

"There is as yet no panic, but Tokyo with 35 million people, is the largest metropolis in the world," he said.

But the U.N. atomic watchdog chief took issue with Oettinger's comments.

"It is not the time to say things are out of control," Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told a news conference. "The operators are doing the maximum to restore the safety of the reactor."

Amano said he hoped to fly to Japan Thursday for a one-day trip to try to get more information from authorities there. He described the situation as "very serious" and earlier urged the Japanese government to provide better information to the IAEA.

Conditions at the plant appeared to be worsening. White steam-like clouds drifted up from one reactor which, the government said, likely emitted the burst of radiation that led to the workers' temporary withdrawal. The plant's operator reported a fire at another reactor for the second time in two days.

At one point, national broadcaster NHK showed military helicopters lifting off to survey radiation levels above the complex, preparing to dump water onto the most troubled reactors in a desperate effort to cool them down. The defense ministry later said it said it had decided against making an airborne drop because of the high radiation levels.

The plant's operator said it has almost completed a new power line that could restore electricity to the complex and solve the crisis.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said early Thursday the power line is almost complete and officials plan to try it "as soon as possible" but he could not say when.

The new line would revive electric-powered pumps, allowing the company to maintain a steady water supply to troubled reactors and spent fuel storage ponds, keeping them cool.

The nuclear crisis has triggered international alarm and partly overshadowed the human tragedy caused by Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami, a blast of black seawater that pulverized Japan's northeastern coastline. The quake was one of the strongest recorded in history.

Millions of people struggled for a fifth day with little food, water or heat, and already chilly temperatures turned to snow in many areas. Police say more than 452,000 people are staying in temporary shelters, often sleeping on the floor in school gymnasiums.

More than 4,300 people are officially listed as dead, but officials believe the toll will climb over 10,000 since several thousand more are listed as missing.

In an extremely rare address to the nation, Emperor Akihito expressed condolences and urged Japan not to give up.

"It is important that each of us shares the difficult days that lie ahead," said Akihito, 77, a figure deeply respected across the country. "I pray that we will all take care of each other and overcome this tragedy."

He also expressed his worries over the nuclear crisis, saying: "With the help of those involved I hope things will not get worse."

Since the quake and wave hit, authorities have been struggling to avert an environmental catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex, 140 miles north of Tokyo. The tsunami knocked out the backup diesel generators needed to keep nuclear fuel cool at the plant's six reactors, setting off the atomic crisis.

In the city of Fukushima, about 40 miles inland from the nuclear complex, hundreds of harried government workers, police officers and others struggled to stay on top of the situation in a makeshift command center.

Early Wednesday, another fire broke out at the crippled facility, which has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo.

Japan's government said radiation levels outside the plant's gates were stable but appealed to private companies to help deliver supplies to tens of thousands of people evacuated from around the complex.

"People would not be in immediate danger if they went outside with these levels. I want people to understand this," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a televised news conference, referring to people living outside an 18-mile exclusion zone. Some 140,000 people inside the zone have been told to stay indoors.

Workers cleared debris to build a road so fire trucks could reach reactor No. 4. Flames were no longer visible at the building housing that reactor.

High radiation levels prevented a helicopter from dropping water into the No. 3 reactor to try to cool its fuel rods after an earlier explosion damaged the unit's roof and cooling system.

The plant operator described No. 3 — the only reactor at that uses plutonium in its fuel mix — as the "priority." Plutonium, once absorbed in the bloodstream, can linger for years in bone marrow or liver and lead to cancer.

The reactor unit may have ruptured, although officials said the damage was unlikely to be severe.

The situation at No. 4 reactor, where the fire broke out, was "not so good", the plant operator TEPCO added, while water was being poured into reactors No. 5 and 6, indicating the entire six-reactor facility was now at risk of overheating.

"Getting water into the pools of the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors is a high priority," Hidehiko Nishiyama, a senior official at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Administration, told a news conference, adding the pool for spent fuel rods at No. 3 was heating up while No. 4 remained a concern.

"It could become a serious problem in a few days," he said.

In the worst case, any radioactive cloud from the damaged nuclear plant is likely to be limited to the densely populated nation — unlike the wider fallout from the Chernobyl disaster, experts say.

The 1986 blast in then-Soviet Ukraine, when the reactor exploded, contaminated large parts of Europe in the world's worst nuclear disaster. At the Fukushima plant, the explosive potential within the six reactors is easing with time.

"In the worst case, a radioactive cloud would not go that far up in the atmosphere," said Jan Beranek, head of environmental group Greenpeace's International Nuclear Campaign.

"That is good news for the world, but bad news for Japan."

Heavy snow blanketed Japan's devastated northeast on Wednesday, hindering rescue workers and adding to the woes of the few, mainly elderly, residents who remained in the area worst hit by last week's massive earthquake and tsunami.

In some parts of Sendai city, firefighters and relief teams sifted through mounds of rubble, hoping to find any sign of life in water-logged wastelands where homes and factories once stood.

But, as they did in most other towns, rescuers just pulled out body after body, which they wrapped in brightly colored blankets and lined up neatly against the grey, grim landscape.

"The strong smell of bodies and the dirty seawater make search extremely difficult," said Yin Guanghui, a member of a Chinese rescue team working in the battered town of Ofunato.

"Powerful waves in the tsunami would repeatedly hit houses in the area. Anyone trapped under the debris would be drown in no time, without any chance to survive."

BREAKING UPDATE>>> - The operator of Japan's tsunami-crippled nuclear plant says it has almost completed a new power line that could restore electricity to the complex and solve the crisis that has threatened a meltdown.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said early Thursday the power line to Fukushima Dai-ichi is almost complete. Officials plan to try it "as soon as possible" but he could not say when.

The new line would revive electric-powered pumps, allowing the company to maintain a steady water supply to troubled reactors and spent fuel storage ponds, keeping them cool.

The nuclear crisis has triggered international alarm and partly overshadowed the human tragedy caused by Friday's earthquake and tsunami that pulverized Japan's northeastern coastline.

BREAKING UPDATE>>> U.S. Embassy recommends wider precaution zone around damaged Japanese nuclear plant.

UPDATE>>> Anxiety and anger is "reaching a boiling point" in Fukushima, Japan. That assessment comes from the state's governor.

Conditions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant appear to have worsened, with white steam-like clouds drifting from one reactor and radiation levels in the area spiking today.

Hundreds of government workers, police officers and others are struggling to stay on top of the situation in a makeshift command center about 40 miles from the nuclear complex.

In an interview with NHK, the governor (Yuhei Sato) criticized evacuation preparations. He says centers are already packed with evacuees from the neighborhoods closest to the plant and running short on hot meals and basic necessities.

Elevated radiation levels have been detected well outside the 20-mile emergency area around the plants. In the state just south of Fukushima, levels had risen to about 300 times normal. But it would take three years of exposure to such levels to raise a person's risk of cancer.

A nuclear safety expert based in Australia says the risks to the general public appear to be low so far. But John Price says he's surprised by how little information Japanese authorities are sharing. He says "even the fundamentals of what's happening" aren't being communicated, adding: "We're all guessing."

UPDATE>>> Japan's nuclear crisis appeared to be spinning out of control on Wednesday after workers withdrew briefly from a stricken power plant because of surging radiation levels and a helicopter failed to drop water on the most troubled reactor.

In a sign of desperation, the police will try to cool spent nuclear fuel at one of the facility's reactors with a water cannon, which is normally used to quell riots.

Early in the day, another fire broke out at the earthquake-crippled facility, which has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo in the past 24 hours, triggering fear in the capital and international alarm.

Japan's government said radiation levels outside the plant's gates were stable but, in a sign of being overwhelmed, appealed to private companies to help deliver supplies to tens of thousands of people evacuated from around the complex.

"People would not be in immediate danger if they went outside with these levels. I want people to understand this," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a televised news conference, referring to people living outside a 18-mile exclusion zone. Some 140,000 people inside the zone have been told to stay indoors.

Workers were trying to clear debris to build a road so fire trucks could reach reactor No. 4 at the Dai-ichi complex in Fukushima, 150 miles north of Tokyo. Flames were no longer visible at the building housing the reactor.

High radiation levels prevented a helicopter from flying to the site to drop water into the No. 3 reactor — whose roof was damaged by an earlier explosion and where steam was seen rising earlier in the day — to try to cool its fuel rods.

The plant operator described No. 3 as the "priority." No more information was available, but that reactor is the only one at Dai-ichi which uses plutonium in its fuel mix.

According to U.S. government research, plutonium is very toxic to humans and once absorbed in the bloodstream can linger for years in bone marrow or liver and can lead to cancer.

The situation at the No. 4 reactor, where the fire broke out, was "not so good," the plant operator added, while water was being poured into reactors No. 5 and 6, indicating the entire six-reactor facility was now at risk of overheating.

Nuclear experts said the solutions being proposed to quell radiation leaks at the complex were last-ditch efforts to stem what could well be remembered as one of the world's worst industrial disasters.

Japanese Emperor Akihito, delivering a rare video message to his people, said he was deeply worried by the country's nuclear crisis which was "unprecedented in scale."

"I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times," the emperor said.

Panic over the economic impact of last Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami knocked $620 billion off Japan's stock market over the first two days of this week, but the Nikkei index rebounded on Wednesday to end up 5.68 percent.

Nevertheless, estimates of losses to Japanese output from damage to buildings, production and consumer activity ranged from between 10 and 16 trillion yen ($125-$200 billion), up to one-and-a-half times the economic losses from the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Damage to Japan's manufacturing base and infrastructure is also threatening significant disruption to the global supply chain, particularly in the technology and auto sectors.

Scores of flights to Japan have been halted or rerouted and air travelers are avoiding Tokyo for fear of radiation. On Wednesday, both France and Australia urged their nationals in Japan to leave the country as authorities grappled with the world's most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

In a demonstration of the qualms about nuclear power that the crisis has triggered around the globe, China announced that it was suspending approvals for planned plants and would launch a comprehensive safety check of facilities.

China has about two dozen reactors under construction and plans to increase nuclear electricity generation about seven-fold over the next 10 years.

In Japan, the plight of hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake and devastating tsunami that followed worsened overnight following a cold snap that brought snow to some of the worst-affected areas.

While the death toll stands at around 4,000, more than 7,000 are listed as missing and the figure is expected to rise.

Concern at Fukushima
At the Fukushima plant, authorities have spent days desperately trying to prevent water which is designed to cool the radioactive cores of the reactors from evaporating, which would lead to overheating and possibly a dangerous meltdown.

Until the heightened alarm about No. 3 reactor, concern had centered on damage to a part of the No. 4 reactor building where spent rods were being stored in pools of water, and also to part of the No. 2 reactor that helps to cool and trap the majority of cesium, iodine and strontium in its water.

Japanese officials said they were talking to the U.S. military about possible help at the plant.

UPDATE>>> Workers were ordered to withdraw briefly from a stricken Japanese nuclear power plant on Wednesday after radiation levels surged, a development that suggested the crisis was spiraling out of control.

Just hours earlier another fire broke out at the earthquake-crippled facility, which has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo in the past 24 hours, triggering fear in the capital and international alarm.

In a potentially alarming development Wednesday, tiny amounts of radiation were detected in the water supply in the area around the nuclear plant, NBC News reported, citing Fuji TV. It said the levels were slightly above the daily average but still within the healthy range.

Japan's Emperor Akihito, in a rare address to the nation , said he was "deeply concerned" and urged people not to give up — as a new effort to use water dropped from helicopters to cool down the reactors was reportedly abandoned after it was decided it was not safe.

On the ground, workers were trying to build a road so fire trucks could reach reactor No. 4 at the plant, 150 miles north of Tokyo.

Flames were no longer visible at the building housing the reactor, but TV pictures showed rising smoke or steam.

Nuclear experts said the solutions being proposed to quell radiation leaks at the Dai-ichi complex were last-ditch efforts to stem what could well be remembered as one of the world's worst industrial disasters.

"This is a slow-moving nightmare," said Dr Thomas Neff, a research affiliate at the Center for International Studies, which is part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

UPDATE>>> Japan may seek direct U.S. military help to end a crisis at a quake-damaged nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan, the chief government spokesman said on Wednesday.

BREAKING UPDATE FROM NBC NEWS>>> Workers at a quake-damaged atomic power plant briefly suspended operations and evacuated Wednesday after a surge in radiation made it too dangerous to remain there, dealing a setback to Japan's frantic efforts to stem a nuclear crisis.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said work on dousing the overheated reactors with water was disrupted by the need to withdraw.

"All the workers there have suspended their operations. We have urged them to evacuate, and they have," Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Edano said, according to a translation by NHK television.

The workers were allowed back into the plant less than an hour later after the radiation levels had fallen.

The surge in radiation was apparently the result of a Tuesday fire in the complex's Unit 4 reactor, according to officials with Japan's nuclear safety agency. That blast is thought to have damaged the reactor's suppression chamber, a water-filled pipe outside the nuclear core that is part of the emergency cooling system.

The nuclear crisis has triggered international alarm and partly overshadowed the human tragedy caused by Friday's double disaster, which pulverized Japan's northeastern coastline, killing an estimated 10,000 people.

Authorities have tried frantically since the earthquake and tsunami to avert an environmental catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex in northeastern Japan, 170 miles (270 kilometers) north Tokyo.

BREAKING UPDATE>>> The operator of Japan's stricken nuclear power plant is considering spraying water and acid by helicopters and fire trucks into its troubled reactors to prevent further radiation from leaking.

Masami Nishimura, a spokesman for Japan's nuclear safety agency, said Wednesday that Tokyo Electric Power Co. was considering the measures after a string of explosions and fires at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which was damaged by last week's massive earthquake and tsunami.

BREAKING UPDATE>>> Japan's nuclear safety agency says 70 percent of the nuclear fuel rods in an earthquake-stricken reactor may have been damaged following an explosion.

An agency spokesman, Minoru Ohgoda, said Wednesday that the damage occurred in Unit 1 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex. The facility has suffered explosions and fires since
Friday's massive quake and tsunami damaged its cooling system.

Ohgoda said that "it's likely that roughly about 70 percent of the fuel rods may be damaged."

But he said "we don't know the nature of the damage, and it could be either melting, or there might be some holes in them."

BREAKING UPDATE>>> The operator of Japan's stricken Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant says fire broke out again at its No. 4 reactor unit because the initial blaze was not completely extinguished.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. says the new blaze flared early Wednesday in the outer housing of the reactor's containment vessel. Fire fighters are trying to put out the flames.

On Tuesday, a fire broke out in the reactor's fuel storage pond an area where used nuclear fuel is kept cool causing radioactivity to be released into the atmosphere.

Officials are struggling to address the failure of safety systems at several of the plant's reactors after Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami.

BREAKING UPDATE>>> The operator of Japan's stricken Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant says a fire has broken out again at its No. 4 reactor unit.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Hajimi Motujuku says the blaze erupted early Wednesday in the outer housing of the reactor's containment vessel. Fire fighters are trying to put out the flames. Japan's nuclear safety agency also confirmed the fire, whose cause was not immediately known.

On Tuesday, a fire broke out in the reactor's fuel storage pond an area where used nuclear fuel is kept cool causing radioactivity to be released into the atmosphere.

Officials are struggling to address the failure of safety systems at several of the plant's reactors after Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami.

BREAKING UPDATE>>> A new fire was discovered Wednesday morning in the northeastern corner of Reactor 4 building at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, an official with Tokyo Electric and Power told reporters.

UPDATE>>> The world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl rose to a new level Wednesday as engineers at Japan's stricken nuclear complex worried about the possibility of blasts at two other reactors.

"Plant operators were considering the removal of panels from units 5 and 6 reactor buildings to prevent a possible buildup of hydrogen," the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement.

"It was a buildup of hydrogen at units 1, 2, and 3 that led to explosions at the Dai-ichi facilities in recent days," it added.

Units 5 and 6 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant were full of nuclear fuel but not producing when Friday's quake and tsunami struck. They had been considered stable, but on Tuesday a senior Japanese official said temperatures there were also slightly elevated.

"The power for cooling is not working well and the temperature is gradually rising, so it is necessary to control it," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters.

The news followed an explosion Monday night at the plant's unit 4 that opened two large holes in the structure housing spent nuclear fuel rods.

Japanese officials told the IAEA that the spent fuel storage area had caught fire and that radioactivity was "being released directly into the atmosphere."

After the fire was extinguished, a Japanese official said the pool used to cool the spent fuel rods might still be boiling, though the reported levels of radiation had dropped dramatically by evening.

Experts noted that much of the leaking radiation was apparently in steam from boiling water. It had not been emitted directly by fuel rods, which would be far more virulent, they said.

"It's not good, but I don't think it's a disaster," said Steve Crossley, an Australia-based radiation physicist.

The fuel rods are encased in safety containers meant to prevent them from resuming nuclear reactions, nuclear officials said. But they acknowledged that there could have been damage to the containers.

Officials at the plant said they were considering asking for help from the U.S. and Japanese militaries to spray water from helicopters into the pool.

The IAEA also said Tuesday that an explosion Monday at the plant, this one within unit 2, "may have affected the integrity of its primary containment vessel." That means radioactivity could be leaking from the containment vessel.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said low levels of radiation had spread from the complex along Japan's northeastern coast.

"The possibility of further radioactive leakage is heightening," a grim-faced Kan said in an address to the nation.

Levels of 400 millisieverts per hour had been recorded near unit 4, the government said. Exposure to over 100 millisieverts a year is a level which can lead to cancer, according to the World Nuclear Association.

The radiation releases prompted Japan on Tuesday to order 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors and a 30-kilometer (19-mile) no-fly zone was imposed around the site for commercial traffic.

Weather forecasts for the Fukushima area were for snow and wind Tuesday evening, blowing southwest toward Tokyo, then shifting and blowing east out to sea. That's important because it shows which direction a possible nuclear cloud might blow.

'Clearly in a catastrophe'
Soon after the latest events, France's nuclear safety authority ASN said the disaster ranks as a level 6 on the international scale of 1 to 7.

Level 7 was used only once, for Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. The 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania was rated a level 5.

"It is very clear that we are at a level 6," ASN President Andre-Claude Lacoste told a news conference in Paris. "We are clearly in a catastrophe."

"Right now it's worse than Three Mile Island" but it's nowhere near the levels of radioactivity released during Chernobyl, added Donald Olander, a professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.

At Three Mile Island, the radiation leak was held inside the containment shell — thick concrete armor around the reactor. The Chernobyl reactor had no shell and was also operational when the disaster struck. The Japanese reactors automatically shut down when the quake hit.

The IAEA said about 150 people in Japan had received monitoring for radiation levels and that measures to "decontaminate" 23 of them had been taken.

 

UPDATE>>  Japan's transport ministry says it has imposed a no-fly zone over a 20-mile (30-kilometer) radius around the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Ministry spokesman Hiroaki Katsuma said the decision was made Tuesday because of fears that radioactive particles leaking from the complex into the atmosphere could enter passing aircraft.

The no-fly zone does not apply to helicopters that may be deployed to spray water over a reactor where a spent fuel storage pool is feared to be overheating.

Officials are struggling to address the failure of safety systems at several of the plant's reactors after Friday's earthquake and tsunami.

 PREVIOUS COVERAGE:

SOMA, Japan - The catastrophe at Japan's stricken nuclear complex is now worse than Three Mile Island, experts said Tuesday.

An explosion overnight at Unit 4 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant opened two large holes in the structure housing spent nuclear fuel rods in a large pool.

Japanese officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the spent fuel storage area had caught fire and that radioactivity was "being released directly into the atmosphere."

After the fire was extinguished, a Japanese official said the spent fuel pool might still be boiling, though the reported levels of radiation had dropped dramatically by evening.

Experts noted that much of the leaking radiation was apparently in steam from boiling water. It had not been emitted directly by fuel rods, which would be far more virulent, they said.

"It's not good, but I don't think it's a disaster," said Steve Crossley, an Australia-based radiation physicist.

The IAEA said Tuesday that an earlier explosion at the Dai-ichi nuclear plant, this one within Unit 2, "may have affected the integrity of its primary containment vessel." That means radioactivity could be leaking from the containment vessel.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said low levels of radiation had spread from the complex along Japan's northeastern coast.

The radiation releases prompted Japan to order 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors and a30-kilometer (18-mile) no-fly zone was imposed around the Fukushima site Tuesday.

About the only good news Tuesday was that the winds were expected to blow most of the radioactivity out to sea.

Soon after the latest events, France's nuclear safety authority ASN said the disaster ranks as a level six on the international scale of one to seven.

Level seven was used only once, for Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. The 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania was rated a level five.

'Catastrophe'
"It is very clear that we are at a level six," ASN President Andre-Claude Lacoste told a news conference in Paris. "We are clearly in a catastrophe."

On Three Mile Island, the radiation leak was held inside the containment shell — thick concrete armor around the reactor. The Chernobyl reactor had no shell and was also operational when the disaster struck. The Japanese reactors automatically shut down when the quake hit.

The IAEA said about 150 people had received monitoring for radiation levels and that measures to "decontaminate" 23 of them had been taken.

Clearing up nuclear questions

Though Japanese officials urged calm, Tuesday's developments fueled a growing panic in Japan and around the world amid widespread uncertainty over what would happen next.

In the worst-case scenario, the reactor's core would completely melt down, a disaster that would spew large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

Officials in Tokyo — 150 miles to the south of the plant — said radiation in the capital was 10 times normal by evening but there was no threat to human health.

Closer to the stricken nuclear complex, the streets in the coastal city of Soma were empty as the few residents who remained there heeded the government's warning to stay indoors.

Officials just south of Fukushima reported up to 100 times the normal levels of radiation Tuesday morning, Kyodo News agency reported. While those figures are worrying if there is prolonged exposure, they are far from fatal.

'Please do not go outside'
Officials warned there is danger of more leaks and told people living within 19 miles of the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex to stay indoors to avoid exposure that could make people sick.

"Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told residents in the danger zone.

"These are figures that potentially affect health. There is no mistake about that," he said.

Some 70,000 people had already been evacuated from a 12-mile radius from the Dai-ichi complex. About 140,000 remain in the new warning zone.

Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami have killed more than 10,000 people.

UPDATE>>> Japanese authorities are telling people to remain calm but warning those near the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant to seal themselves indoors.

Officials say a fire in a storage pond for spent fuel at the plant's Unit 4 reactor released radioactivity "directly into the atmosphere." The fire was extinguished and radiation levels had
dropped dramatically. But officials say the pond might still be boiling and they're asking the U.S. and Japanese military to help by having helicopters spray water on it.

Experts say the radiation appears to have been in steam produced by the boiling water and was not emitted directly by the fuel rods, which would have been far more virulent.

One physicist based in Australia says while the situation is "not good," he doesn't think it's a "disaster." Steve Crossley says even the highest detected rates are not necessarily harmful
for brief periods.

Tokyo, about 170 miles away, has reported slightly elevated radiation levels, but officials say the increase was too small to be a threat.

Still, the developments are fueling a growing sense panic. A pump technician from the Fukushima plant, now at an evacuation center with his infant daughter, says he worries "a lot about fallout," adding: "If we could see it, we could escape, but we can't."

UPDATE>>> 30-km no-fly zone declared for stricken Japan nuke plant, atomic watchdog says

UPDATE>>> Dangerous levels of radiation leaking from a crippled nuclear plant forced Japan to order 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors Tuesday after an explosion and a fire dramatically escalated the crisis spawned by a deadly quake and tsunami.

The international nuclear agency said a fire in a storage pond for spent nuclear fuel at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex had released radioactivity "directly into the atmosphere".

In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan confirmed that radiation had leaked from the nuclear plant.

Though Kan and other officials urged calm, Tuesday's developments fueled a growing panic in Japan and around the world amid widespread uncertainty over what would happen next.

In the worst-case scenario, the reactor's core would completely melt down, a disaster that would spew large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

Tokyo reported slightly elevated radiation levels, but officials said the increase was too small to threaten the 39 million people in and around the capital, about 170 miles away. Closer to the stricken nuclear complex, the streets in the coastal city of Soma were empty as the few residents who remained there heeded the government's warning to stay indoors.

Officials just south of Fukushima reported up to 100 times the normal levels of radiation Tuesday morning, Kyodo News agency reported. While those figures are worrying if there is prolonged exposure, they are far from fatal.

'Please do not go outside'
Kan and other officials warned there is danger of more leaks and told people living within 19 miles of the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex to stay indoors to avoid exposure that could make people sick.

"Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told residents in the danger zone.

"These are figures that potentially affect health. There is no mistake about that," he said.

Weather forecasts for Fukushima were for snow and wind from the northeast Tuesday evening, blowing southwest toward Tokyo, then shifting and blowing west out to sea. That's important because it shows which direction a possible nuclear cloud might blow.

BREAKING UPDATE>>> Officials have detected slightly higher-than-normal radiation levels in Tokyo but insist there are no health dangers.

The radiation increase follows a nuclear crisis in northeastern Japan, where a series of reactors were hit by last Friday's earthquake and tsunami.

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