Video: Radiation leaks from Japan nuke plant

  1. Closed captioning of: Radiation leaks from Japan nuke plant

    >>> good morning. breaking news. japan 's nuclear crisis takes a dire turn. high levels of radiation spewing from the damaged nuclear plant following an explosion at a third reactor and a fire in a fourth. an official is calling it, quote, a very bad scenario as officials work to contain the risk today, tuesday, march 15, 2011 .

    >>> welcome to "today" on this tuesday morning. i'm meredith vieira .

    >> officials in japan are saying the radiation leaking from the crippled nuclear power plant is enough to impact human health .

    >> the big concern is the number 2 reactor which exploded on monday sending more radiation into the air and then a fire at reactor 4 broke out. that one had been shut down for maintenance before the quake. all but 50 employees of the plant have been evacuated. in a nationally televised address japan 's prime minister urged anyone living near the plant who had not already evacuated to seal themselves indoors and warned of the very high risk of more leaks.

    >> you hear the story and i think about the bravery of the 50 people who remain at the plant trying to cool the reactors at great personal risk.

    >> you wonder if they will have to leave as well and then what's going to happen?

    >> what's the outcome of that?

    >> in tokyo , slightly elevated radiation levels have been detected. we'll get the latest on an extremely tense situation straight ahead.

    >> there is a rare piece of good news. rescuers found a 70-year-old woman alive in her home four days after it was swept away by the tsunami. ann curry has details and a closer look at the toll this crisis is taking on people there. let's begin on this tuesday morning with the nuclear crisis. robert bazell , nbc's chief science correspondent, is in tokyo . good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning, matt. the nuclear crisis in japan has taken a turn for the worse. many people are saying it's ominous. that explosion in reactor number 4 blew a hole in the cement containment facility allowing radiation to leak. the fire in the other reactor is allowing some radiation to get out. there are several reactors at the fukushima site. one of them in the cement dome. so far the metal cylinder has not broken but radiation is escaping.

    >> the danger seems to have significantly increased over the past couple of days.

    >> reporter: the japanese prime minister naoto kan told people the radiation wasn't a widespread hazard and there was no need to evacuate beyond the 12 miles already established. those leaving have been checked for radiation. all the but the most essential personal nel have been told to leave the site. they offered public apologies.

    >> translator: this is a very poor, very bad scenario.

    >> reporter: satellite photos before and after show the damage. the fire that broke out today is at a reactor that was shut down for maintenance before the earthquake and was not releasing large quantities of radiation. experts agree the total amount of radiation isn't a significant health hazard beyond the area of the reactor.

    >> the amount of radiation that's likely to be released is going to be relatively small compared to an accident like chernobyl.

    >> reporter: it's not chernobyl for sure, but it's worse than mile islan d.

    >> bob, we mentioned that tokyo is 170 miles south of the power plant . i understand there is -- maybe chaos is too strong a word but there are a lot of people who are uneasy in tokyo trying to get out of the country any way they can. is that correc is that correct? are you seeing that?

    >> reporter: mostly foreigners are trying to get out. people aren't leaving tokyo who live here. no one is saying the radiation levels are posing a threat at this time. a lot of foreigners who have the option of getting out are looking at this and saying, well, it's not so bad right now. there has not been this catastrophic leak of radiation everybody fears but let's not wait around for that to happen. if it did nobody's getting out of anywhere. that's the mentality driving a lot of people to book flights and trains to get as far as from here as they can.

    >> robert bazell in tokyo , thank you very much.

Image: City lights and billboards are turned off in Tokyo
Jiji Press  /  AFP - Getty Images
The normally well-lit Ginza fashion district in Tokyo is dark on Monday as rolling blackouts were implemented in many parts of Japan to combat a shortage of electricity.
By Kari Huus Reporter
updated 3/15/2011 6:22:13 PM ET 2011-03-15T22:22:13

When Japan lost a large chunk of its electricity-generating capacity to the one-two punch of earthquake and tsunami, the narrative in parts of one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies was transformed overnight into one of Third World hardship.

For most Japanese, the rolling outages instituted in the wake of the twin disasters translate to inconvenience, sacrifice and economic loss. But for tens of thousands who are now homeless and huddled in evacuation centers in the hard-hit northeast, the stakes are much higher.

"In known evacuation centers, people who reached actual evacuation centers, you have a half million Japanese displaced. They don't have water, they don't have electricity, they don't have oil," said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And the temperatures are... dipping below freezing because it's snowing in most of those regions. So there's an acute humanitarian crisis today in Japan.”

Nuclear plant occupies engineers
The difficulties don’t end there. Engineers with the Tokyo Electric Power Co., who normally might be working to get shut-down nuclear plants back online, are instead occupied with a meltdown at the company’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

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Interactive: How a nuclear plant works

And for the aid organizations who seek to help the displaced, the lack of power in the quake zone and freezing temperatures are one more reason to rush, and one more challenge to face.

The disaster that struck Japan on Friday knocked out about one-fifth of the country’s 55 nuclear reactors, which normally provide nearly 30 percent of the total power in the country. It also clobbered many thermal plants and knocked out an unknown portion of Japan’s electricity transmission system.

Disaster at a glance

In the northern part of the country, in addition to powerless evacuation centers, the Japanese government said Monday that some 1.25 million homes were without heat, and nearly 3.2 million people were facing reduced gas supplies in the coming days. Other estimates put the number of homes already without power two to three times higher.

In the city of Ishinomaki, previously home to about 164,000 people, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported Monday that survivors seeking heat and shelter crowded into a Red Cross hospital, which was one of the only buildings in the city that still had power.

Video: At least 15,000 people missing in Japan (on this page)

In addition to those with no electricity, customers in many parts of the country are having to cope with three-hour rolling blackouts instituted Monday by TEPCO, the largest power company of 10 in the country and the operator of the Fukushima plants. It said Monday that the rolling blackouts would affect 3 million customers, including large factories and buildings, and would likely continue through the end of April.

On Tuesday a second utility, Tohuku Electric Power Co. said it would also implement electricity rationing, Kyodo News Service reported. Tohuku covers a large swath of the country north of Tokyo, including many of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami.

Tohoku Electric officials said power rationing could run for several months — with outages of up to six hours a day in some prefectures, Kyodo reported, while the company worked to restore quake-damages thermal plants. Company officials said, however, that the rolling blackouts would exclude quake hit areas that are trying to recover.

“What’s probably going on in Japan is they are trying to get as much power as they can to as many people as they can," said Walt Pollock, a retired vice president of power supply for Portland General Electric Co. "So they implement the rolling blackouts … to spread the pain.”

Replacing lost generating capacity suffered in the quake is a long-term problem — especially in the nuclear sector, where seriously damaged plants are unlikely to be repaired or restarted, he said.

"There's no easy answers to how Japan would get ... the kind power that 5 (to) 8 nuclear power plants provide," said Pollock. "The number of nuclear plants they have off line is far greater than the generating capacity of the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest single power generating plant in the (U.S.) Northwest."

There is not much information yet to predict how long it might take to restore some power to sections of Japan that were taken off line by the disaster.

“There are no completely isolated parts of the grid,” said Michael Levi, senior fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Japan has greater interconnection throughout the country than, let's say, in the United States."

"The big open question is, what impact has the physical destruction had on the grid itself" he adds. "So even if in theory you can wheel power from one part to another, if some of the transmission lines are down... that can make that task much more difficult."

Technology fades to black
The Japanese government has called on citizens and businesses to conserve wherever possible to ease the strain on the system. Train system service is limited, stores have shortened hours, escalators and elevators run sporadically, and massive video screens that normally add to the cacophony of Tokyo life were dark.

The rationing is causing discomfort and confusion in many places, as well as logistical problems, which affect aid workers along with residents in a country that is accustomed to modern efficiency.

World Vision International, a Christian nonprofit based in Federal Way, Wash., said the three-person advance team it dispatched to the battered city of Sendai spent one night in cars and a second in a church while on the way deliver bottled water, blankets and baby supplies and pave the way for a larger-scale relief effort.

Video: Radiation leaks from Japan nuke plant (on this page)

There is power in the center of Sendai, said communications and outreach director Mitsuko Sobata, Tokyo-based communications and advocacy officer for the organization. But the organization has little information about the situation in Tome, a small city normally about an hour's drive to the north that World Vision plans to aid at the suggestion of the government in Sendai. She says the Tome’s government has been trying to grapple with thousands of evacuees and virtually impossible to reach by phone. 

“It certainly complicates the situation,” said Casey Calamusa, international news officer with World Vision who is working in Tokyo. “So much of what we do nowadays is reliant on technology.”

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