Video: Situation in Japan worsens with reactor explosions

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    >>> welcome back to "the ed show." there is breaking news at this hour. a fourth reactor is on fire in japan. rejoining us now is james acton of the carnegie endowment for peace and we are also joined by nbc news chief, science and health correspondent, robert bazell who is in tokyo. gentlemen, this situation seems to be more dire by the moment. mr. acton , you just heard the prime minister of japan speak a few moments ago. what did he say about this fire at a fourth reactor and more radiation has been released?

    >> well, ed, this is really the end of a truly awful 24 hours even by the standards of this terrible crisis. the prime minister mentioned a fire at the fourth reactor and then the cabinet secretary elaborated a bit more. basically, he said that the fire was associated with the spent fuel storage areas in the fourth reactor. now, i should take a step back. that fourth reactor was shot down for refueling at the time that the earthquake hit. and so it wasn't in nearly so critical a condition. there wasn't highly radioactive fuel in the core that needed cooling. nevertheless, there was highly radioactive spent fuel either in the spent fuel storage poles or in the process of being transferred from the reactor to those ports. and there has been a fire in some way associated with those.

    >> bob bazell, the japanese prime minister warned residents within 19 miles to stay indoors. why wouldn't getting any further away from that be an option? why would he put a limit on it?

    >> reporter: well, first of all, that is an area that suffered an enormous amount from the devastation of the earthquake and the tsunami and evacuation is putting even more pressure on people who are horribly stressed already. i don't want to get into an argument about radiation levels with you or senator alexander but right now the radiation levels are not that high. they're far higher than they should be. i certainly agree with james acton that this is a tragic situation that is unfolding here but you're not talking about the kind of radiation levels where you tell everybody to go run for the hills because it's not that dangerous when it gets dispersed that far away . and you create panic and enormous logistical problems in an area that's already suffering almost beyond belief.

    >> so how significant is this, bob? what has unfolded tonight? another explosion, radiation being released, and a fourth reactor, a fire?

    >> it is very significant. this is unfolding as the worst nuclear disaster other than chernobyl. and i'm not going to get into an argument about those death rates you were citing before at three mile island. i don't think anybody was hurt at three mile island. and when you talk about nuclear energy , and even in the middle of a crisis like this, and this is a crisis, you have to remember we get our energy from somewhere. we're ranting and raving for a long time about the gulf oil spill and how much damage that was doing. think about how many people die mining coal every year. you know, as long as we're looking for energy we're going to have to take some risks. what we're seeing now is very, very bad and very frightening to me in many ways, but the argument about whether we should have nuclear power is not so simple based on this one accident or any other accident. back to the question, this is an unprecedented situation. it makes -- one of the things that i think happens here is that the system because of the earthquake and the tsunami, and there are about ten reactors on this one site, and this fire in the reactor that is down is a result of people just getting to be overwhelmed by trying to put out one fire or take care of one incident and then they have to go on to other things and so they may take care of the routine maintenance they were doing on this other plant and the fire took place. so a lot of people who were worried about this to start with said that this situation, when it unfolded, because there were initially two reactors and a third and now a fourth and there could even be more, ten reactors on that one site, they warned that this -- of this potential chain reaction effect. i don't mean that as a metaphor.

    >> james acton , bob bazell, chief nbc science correspondent, thank you for joining us tonight on this story.

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/15/2011 1:26:24 AM ET 2011-03-15T05:26:24

Radiation is spewing from damaged reactors at a crippled nuclear power plant in tsunami-ravaged northeastern Japan in a dramatic escalation of the 4-day-old catastrophe. The prime minister has warned residents to stay inside or risk getting radiation sickness.

In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said radiation has spread from the three reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in one of the hardest-hit provinces in Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. He told people living within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the plant to evacuate and those within 19 miles (30 kilometers) to stay indoors.

"The level seems very high, and there is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out," Kan said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said early Tuesday that a fourth reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex was on fire and that more radiation was released, but officials announced later in the day that the fire was extinguished.

"Now we are talking about levels that can damage human health. These are readings taken near the area where we believe the releases are happening. Far away, the levels should be lower," Edano said.

A third explosion in four days rocked the earthquake-damaged plant earlier Tuesday.

Two sources told NBC News' Robert Bazell that the blast breached the containment structure and that radiation had leaked out.

Japan's nuclear agency said the explosion may have damaged the reactor's suppression chamber, a water-filled tube at the bottom of the container that surrounds the nuclear core, said agency spokesman, Shinji Kinjo. He said that chamber is part of the container wall.

The suppression chamber is used to turn steam back into water to cool the reactor and also plays a role in removing radioactive particles from the steam.

Cosmic Log: Clearing up nuclear questions

Rising radiation levels
Japanese officials had previously said radiation levels at the plant were within safe limits, and international scientists said that while there were serious dangers, there was little risk of a catastrophe like Chernobyl in Ukraine, where the reactor exploded and released a radiation cloud over much of Europe.

Unlike the plant in Japan, the Chernobyl reactor was not housed in a sealed container to prevent the release of radiation.

Radiation levels measured at the front gate of the Dai-ichi plant spiked following Tuesday's explosion, Kinjo said.

Detectors showed 11,900 microsieverts of radiation three hours after the blast, up from just 73 microsieverts beforehand, Kinjo said. He said there was no immediate health risk because the higher measurement was less radiation that a person receives from an X-ray. He said experts would worry about health risks if levels exceed 100,000 microsieverts.

In Tokyo, slightly higher-than-normal radiation levels were detected Tuesday but officials insisted there are no health dangers.

"The amount is extremely small, and it does not raise health concerns. It will not affect us," Takayuki Fujiki, a Tokyo government official said.

In a sign of mounting fears about the risk of radiation, neighboring China said it was strengthening monitoring and Air China said it had canceled flights to Tokyo.

Several embassies advised staff and citizens to leave affected areas. Tourists cut short vacations and multinational companies either urged staff to leave or said they were considering plans to move outside the city.

The blast at Dai-ichi Unit 2 followed two hydrogen explosions at the plant — the latest on Monday — as authorities struggled to prevent the catastrophic release of radiation in the area devastated by a tsunami.

The troubles at the Dai-ichi complex began when Friday's massive quake and tsunami in Japan's northeast knocked out power, crippling cooling systems needed to keep nuclear fuel from melting down.

Officials said 50 workers were still there trying to put water into the reactors to cool them. They say 800 other staff were evacuated. The fires and explosions at the reactors have injured 15 workers and military personnel and exposed up to 190 people to elevated radiation.

The latest explosion came as Japanese engineers pumped seawater into Unit 2 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant after coolant water levels there dropped, exposing uranium fuel rods.

The water drop left the rods no longer completely covered in coolant, thus increasing the risk of a radiation leak and the potential for a meltdown at the Unit 2 reactor, Tokyo Electric Power Co. said.

3 reactors 'likely' melting
Workers managed to raise water levels after the second drop Monday night, but they began falling for a third time, according to Naoki Kumagai, an official with Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Agency.

It now seems that the nuclear fuel rods inside all three functioning reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex are melting, a senior government official said.

"Although we cannot directly check it, it's highly likely happening," Edano said.

Some experts would consider melting fuel rods a partial meltdown. Others, though, reserve that term for times when nuclear fuel melts through a reactor's innermost chamber but not through the outer containment shell.

Officials held out the possibility that, too, may be happening. "It's impossible to say whether there has or has not been damage" to the vessels, Kumagai said.

If a complete reactor meltdown — where the uranium core melts through the outer containment shell — were to occur, a wave of radiation would be released, resulting in major, widespread health problems.

Also unknown was the status of any nuclear waste that might be stored at the site, and whether the pools housing used fuel were still being cooled to prevent a radiation release.

The cabinet secretary's comments followed a hydrogen explosion at Unit 3 on Monday that injured 11 workers and was heard 25 miles away. A similar explosion happened at Unit 1 on Saturday.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan later said the government was setting up a joint response headquarters with TEPCO to better manage the crisis.

Of all these troubles, the drop in water levels at Unit 2 had officials the most worried.

"Units 1 and 3 are at least somewhat stabilized for the time being," said Nuclear and Industrial Agency official Ryohei Shiomi. "Unit 2 now requires all our effort and attention."

The blast occurred as authorities tried to cool the reactor with seawater.

"It's like a horror movie," said 49-year-old Kyoko Nambu as she stood on a hillside overlooking her ruined hometown of Soma, about 25 miles from the plant. "Our house is gone and now they are telling us to stay indoors.

"We can see the damage to our houses, but radiation? ... We have no idea what is happening. I am so scared."

Video: Death toll rises amid Japan disaster

Authorities said operators knew an explosion was a possibility as they struggled to reduce pressure inside the reactor containment vessel, but apparently felt they had no choice if they wanted to avoid a complete meltdown. In the end, the hydrogen in the released steam mixed with oxygen in the atmosphere and set off the blast.

In some ways, the explosion at Unit 3 was not as dire as it might seem.

The blast actually lessened pressure building inside the troubled reactor, and officials said the all-important containment shell — thick concrete armor around the reactor — had not been damaged. In addition, officials said radiation levels remained within legal limits, though anyone left within 12 miles of the scene was ordered to remain indoors.

"We have no evidence of harmful radiation exposure" from Monday's blast, Deputy Cabinet Secretary Noriyuki Shikata told reporters.

On Saturday, a similar explosion took place at the plant's Unit 1, injuring four workers and causing mass evacuations. A Japanese official said 22 people had been confirmed to have suffered radiation contamination and up to 190 may have been exposed. Workers in protective clothing used hand-held scanners to check people arriving at evacuation centers.

While four Japanese nuclear complexes were damaged in the wake of Friday's twin disasters, the Dai-ichi complex, which sits just off the Pacific coast and was badly hammered by the tsunami, has been the focus of most of the worries over Japan's deepening nuclear crisis. All three of the operational reactors at the complex now have faced severe troubles.

The length of time since the nuclear crisis began could indicate that the chemical reactions inside the reactors were not moving quickly toward a complete meltdown.

"We're now into the fourth day. Whatever is happening in that core is taking a long time to unfold," said Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the nuclear policy program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They've succeeded in prolonging the timeline of the accident sequence."

He noted, though, that Japanese officials appeared unable to figure out what was going on deep inside the reactors. In part, that was probably because of the damage done to the facility by the tsunami.

"The real question mark is what's going on inside the core," he said.

Clearing up nuclear questions

The U.N. World Health Organization said the public health risk from Japan's atomic plants remained "quite low."

Moreover, the Japan Meteorological Agency said that the winds in the area were blowing toward the Pacific Ocean, away from populated areas.

'Fundamentally different' from Chernobyl
Citing experts, The New York Times reported that radioactive steam could be released from the stricken plants for weeks or possibly months.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi complex was due to be decommissioned in February but was given a new 10-year lease on life.

Its reactors were designed by General Electric. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft. GE is a part owner of NBC Universal.)

Japanese authorities have classified the event at Dai-ichi's No. 1 reactor as a level 4 "accident with local consequences" on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES).

The scale is used to consistently communicate the safety significance of events associated with sources of radiation. The scale runs from 0 (deviation — no safety significance) to 7 (major accident).

The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania was a level 5 ("accident with wider consequences"). The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was a level 7.

GE-designed reactors in Fukushima have 23 sisters in U.S.

The reactor that exploded at Chernobyl, sending a cloud of radiation over much of Europe and killing 4,000 either directly or from cancer, was not housed in a sealed container as those at Dai-ichi are. The Japanese reactors also do not use graphite, which burned for several days at Chernobyl.

Prime Minister Kan on Sunday sought to allay radiation fears. "Radiation has been released in the air, but there are no reports that a large amount was released," Jiji news agency quoted him as saying. "This is fundamentally different from the Chernobyl accident."

Video: Is Japan facing a Chernobyl-like crisis?

Japan's nuclear crisis was triggered by twin disasters on Friday, when the most powerful earthquake in the country's recorded history was followed by a tsunami that savaged its northeastern coast with breathtaking speed and power.

Japan has a total of 55 reactors spread across 17 complexes nationwide.

Interactive: How a nuclear plant works

U.S. sailors exposed
On Monday, the U.S. Seventh Fleet moved its ships and aircraft away from Japan's northeast coast after discovering low-level radioactive contamination on crews returning from relief missions.

The fleet said that the radiation was from a plume of smoke and steam released from the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

Seventeen U.S. military personnel involved in helicopter relief missions were found to have been exposed to low levels of radiation upon returning to the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier about 100 miles offshore.

U.S. officials said the level was roughly equal to one month's normal exposure to natural background radiation in the environment, and after scrubbing with soap and water, the 17 were declared contamination-free.

msnbc.com

As for the potential of radiation reaching the U.S. mainland, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Sunday said no harmful levels were likely.

"Given the thousands of miles between the two countries, Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. territories and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity," it said in a statement.

In other developments Monday:

  • India announced a review of all nuclear reactors in the country in view of the Japanese radiation leak. India has 20 nuclear power plants, mostly located along the coast.
  • Germany's coalition government has suspended an agreement prolonging the life of the nation's nuclear power stations, Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
  • Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia would not change ambitious plans to build dozens of nuclear power stations in coming decades.
  • The Swiss government suspended plans to replace and build new nuclear plants pending a review of the two hydrogen explosions at Japanese plants.

Reuters, The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster

These aerial photos show locations in Japan before and after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11. Use the slider below the images to reveal the changes in the landscape.

Explainer: The 10 deadliest earthquakes in recorded history

  • A look at the worst earthquakes in recorded history, in loss of human life. (The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsumani that affected eastern Japan is not included because the fatalities caused, about 15,000, are fewer than those resulting from the temblors listed below.) Sources: United States Geological Survey, Encyclopedia Britannica

  • 1: Shensi, China, Jan. 23, 1556

    Magnitude about 8, about 830,000 deaths.

    This earthquake occurred in the Shaanxi province (formerly Shensi), China, about 50 miles east-northeast of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi. More than 830,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Damage extended as far away as about 270 miles northeast of the epicenter, with reports as far as Liuyang in Hunan, more than 500 miles away. Geological effects reported with this earthquake included ground fissures, uplift, subsidence, liquefaction and landslides. Most towns in the damage area reported city walls collapsed, most to all houses collapsed and many of the towns reported ground fissures with water gushing out.

  • 2: Tangshan, China, July 27, 1976

    Chinese Earthquake
    Keystone  /  Getty Images
    1976: Workers start rebuilding work following earthquake damage in the Chinese city of Tangshan, 100 miles east of Pekin, with a wrecked train carriage behind them. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
    Magnitude 7.5. Official casualty figure is 255,000 deaths. Estimated death toll as high as 655,000.

    Damage extended as far as Beijing. This is probably the greatest death toll from an earthquake in the last four centuries, and the second greatest in recorded history.

  • 3: Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 9, 1138

    Magnitude not known, about 230,000 deaths.

    Contemporary accounts said the walls of Syria’s second-largest city crumbled and rocks cascaded into the streets. Aleppo’s citadel collapsed, killing hundreds of residents. Although Aleppo was the largest community affected by the earthquake, it likely did not suffer the worst of the damage. European Crusaders had constructed a citadel at nearby Harim, which was leveled by the quake. A Muslim fort at Al-Atarib was destroyed as well, and several smaller towns and manned forts were reduced to rubble. The quake was said to have been felt as far away as Damascus, about 220 miles to the south. The Aleppo earthquake was the first of several occurring between 1138 and 1139 that devastated areas in northern Syria and western Turkey.

  • 4: Sumatra, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2004

    Aerial images show the extent of the devastation in Meulaboh
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    MEULABOH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 29: In this handout photo taken from a print via the Indonesian Air Force, the scene of devastation in Meulaboh, the town closest to the Sunday's earthquake epicentre, is pictured from the air on December 29, 2004, Meulaboh, Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. The western coastal town in Aceh Province, only 60 kilometres north-east of the epicentre, has been the hardest hit by sunday's underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Officials expected to find at least 10,000 killed which would amount to a quarter of Meulaboh's population. Three-quarters of Sumatra's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out after the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. (Photo by Indonesian Air Force via Getty Images)

    Magnitude 9.1, 227,898 deaths.

    This was the third largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the largest since the 1964 Prince William Sound, Alaska temblor. In total, 227,898 people were killed or were missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in South Asia and East Africa. (In January 2005, the death toll was 286,000. In April 2005, Indonesia reduced its estimate for the number missing by over 50,000.)

  • 5: Haiti, Jan 12, 2010

    Haitians walk through collapsed building
    Jean-philippe Ksiazek  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Haitians walk through collapsed buildings near the iron market in Port-au-Prince on January 31, 2010. Quake-hit Haiti will need at least a decade of painstaking reconstruction, aid chiefs and donor nations warned, as homeless, scarred survivors struggled today to rebuild their lives. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK (Photo credit should read JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

    Magnitude 7.0. According to official estimates, 222,570 people killed.

    According to official estimates, 300,000 were also injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti. This includes at least 4 people killed by a local tsunami in the Petit Paradis area near Leogane. Tsunami waves were also reported at Jacmel, Les Cayes, Petit Goave, Leogane, Luly and Anse a Galets.

  • 6: Damghan, Iran, Dec. 22, 856

    Magnitude not known, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake struck a 200-mile stretch of northeast Iran, with the epicenter directly below the city of Demghan, which was at that point the capital city. Most of the city was destroyed as well as the neighboring areas. Approximately 200,000 people were killed.

  • 7: Haiyuan, Ningxia , China, Dec. 16, 1920

    7.8 magnitude, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake brought total destruction to the Lijunbu-Haiyuan-Ganyanchi area. Over 73,000 people were killed in Haiyuan County. A landslide buried the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County. More than 30,000 people were killed in Guyuan County. Nearly all the houses collapsed in the cities of Longde and Huining. About 125 miles of surface faulting was seen from Lijunbu through Ganyanchi to Jingtai. There were large numbers of landslides and ground cracks throughout the epicentral area. Some rivers were dammed, others changed course.

  • 8: Ardabil, Iran, March. 23, 893

    Magnitude not known, about 150,000 deaths

    The memories of the massive Damghan earthquake (see above) had barely faded when only 37 years later, Iran was again hit by a huge earthquake. This time it cost 150,000 lives and destroyed the largest city in the northwestern section of the country. The area was again hit by a fatal earthquake in 1997.

  • 9: Kanto, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923

    Kanto Damage
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images
    1923: High-angle view of earthquake and fire damage on Hongokucho Street and the Kanda District, taken from the Yamaguchi Bank building after the Kanto earthquake, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    7.9 magnitude, 142,800 deaths.

    This earthquake brought extreme destruction in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, both from the temblor and subsequent firestorms, which burned about 381,000 of the more than 694,000 houses that were partially or completely destroyed. Although often known as the Great Tokyo Earthquake (or the Great Tokyo Fire), the damage was most severe in Yokohama. Nearly 6 feet of permanent uplift was observed on the north shore of Sagami Bay and horizontal displacements of as much as 15 feet were measured on the Boso Peninsula.

  • 10: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Oct. 5, 1948

    7.3 magnitude, 110,000 deaths.

    This quake brought extreme damage in Ashgabat (Ashkhabad) and nearby villages, where almost all the brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged and freight trains were derailed. Damage and casualties also occurred in the Darreh Gaz area in neighboring Iran. Surface rupture was observed both northwest and southeast of Ashgabat. Many sources list the casualty total at 10,000, but a news release from the newly independent government on Dec. 9, 1988, advised that the correct death toll was 110,000. (Turkmenistan had been part of the Soviet Union, which tended to downplay the death tolls from man-made and natural disasters.)

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