Video: Japan PM calls for calm as crisis deepens

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/15/2011 6:31:08 PM ET 2011-03-15T22:31:08

The world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl rose to a new level Wednesday as another fire erupted at Japan's stricken nuclear complex and engineers worried about the possibility of blasts at two other reactor buildings. In addition, two workers were reported missing after an earlier fire.

The new fire broke out Wednesday morning at Unit 4 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. It was inside the structure covering the containment vessel for the unit's nuclear reactor, Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Hajimi Motujuku said.

A blast and fire at Unit 4 nearly 24 hours earlier opened two holes in the outer building, emitting radiation from overheating spent fuel in a storage pool.

Two workers inside the unit were missing after the first fire, Japan's nuclear safety agency said. The status of the nuclear reactor inside the building was not known.

Officials were also concerned about the reactors in Units 5 and 6.

"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 were loaded with 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.

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 first Unit 4 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.

Tuesday night, Japan ordered the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power, to inject water into the pool "as soon as possible to avert a major nuclear disaster."

her options were under consideration, including fire engines.

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.

Clearing up nuclear questions

Though Japanese officials urged calm, Tuesday's developments fueled a growing panic amid widespread uncertainty over what would happen next.

In the worst-case scenario, one or more reactor cores would completely melt down, a disaster that would spew large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

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

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.

How much radiation is dangerous?

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.

Interactive: How a nuclear plant works

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

Officials warned there is danger of more leaks and told people living within 19 miles of the Dai-ichi complex to stay indoors.

"Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight," 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 are in the new warning zone.

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

70 workers at plant
Workers were desperately trying to stabilize the three reactors at Units 1, 2 and 3 that were working when the quake and tsunami struck. Releases of hydrogen gas caused explosions that destroyed the outer structures at each unit.

Fourteen pumps have been brought in to get seawater into those three reactors.

There was also possible core damage at the Unit 2 reactor, estimated at less than 5 percent of the fuel, and there might also be damage to the unit's primary containment structure.

"Is it a crack? Is it a hole? Is it nothing? That we don't know yet," IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told reporters.

But he said the pressure in the containment vessel had not fallen. "If there is a huge damage the pressure should go down."

Unit 4, where the pool is, had been under maintenance and was not operating at the time of the quake and tsunami.

With power out and the regular coolant gone, engineers are now injecting seawater into the reactors as a last-ditch coolant. Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, said it would try to inject seawater inside the pool area within three days.

Officials said 70 workers were at the complex, struggling with its myriad problems. The workers, all of them wearing protective gear, are being rotated in and out of the danger zone quickly to reduce their radiation exposure.

About 800 other staff were evacuated. The fires and explosions at the reactors have injured 15 workers and military personnel.

Prime Minister Kan himself lambasted TEPCO for taking so long to inform his office about one of the blasts, Kyodo news service reported.

"The TV reported an explosion. But nothing was said to the premier's office for about an hour," a Kyodo reporter quoted Kan as telling power company executives. "What the hell is going on?"

The death toll from last week's earthquake and tsunami jumped as police confirmed the number killed had topped 2,400. Officials say that at least 10,000 people may have died in Miyagi province alone, but those deaths are not confirmed.

Story: Millions in Japanese cold struggle without electricity, heat

The Dai-ichi plant is the most severely affected of three nuclear complexes that were declared emergencies after suffering damage in Friday's quake and tsunami, raising questions about the safety of such plants in coastal areas near fault lines and adding to global jitters over the industry.

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.)

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

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

The impact of the earthquake and tsunami dragged down stock markets. The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average plunged for a second day Tuesday, nose-diving more than 10 percent to close at 8,605.15 while the broader Topix lost more than 8 percent.

To lessen the damage, Japan's central bank made two cash injections totaling $98 billion Tuesday into the money markets after pumping in $184 billion on Monday.

Initial estimates put repair costs in the tens of billions of dollars, costs that would likely add to a massive public debt that, at 200 percent of gross domestic product, is the biggest among industrialized nations.

The Associated Press and Reuters 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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