Image: Japanese military helicopters scoop water.
Kenji Shimizu  /  AP
Japanese Self-Defense Force helicopters scoop water off Japan's northeast coast Thursday morning on their way to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/17/2011 1:39:23 AM ET 2011-03-17T05:39:23

  • Helicopters drop water on stricken nuclear plant
  • Washington sees crisis as more dire than Japan
  • Japanese PM speaks to President Obama
  • Governments urge citizens to evacuate
  • TOKYO — Japanese military helicopters dumped loads of seawater onto a stricken nuclear complex Thursday, trying to cool dangerously overheated uranium fuel rods that may be on the verge of spewing more radiation into the atmosphere.

    The extraordinary, combat-style tactics came as plant operators said they were racing to finish a new power line that could restore cooling systems and ease the crisis. Still, U.S. officials warned all Americans living within 50 miles of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant to leave the area or at least remain indoors.

    The Japanese government said it had no plans to expand its 20-kilometer (13-mile) evacuation zone around the complex.

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

    Japanese military CH-47 Chinook helicopters began dumping seawater on the complex's damaged Unit 3 at 9:48 a.m. (0048 GMT, 8:48 p.m. EDT), said defense ministry spokeswoman Kazumi Toyama. The choppers dumped at least four loads on the reactor, though television footage showed much of it appearing to disperse in the wind.

    At least a dozen more loads were planned in the 40 minutes each crew can work to limit their radiation exposure, the ministry said.

    The water drops were aimed at cooling the Unit 3 reactor, as well as replenishing water in that unit's cooling pool, where used fuel rods are stored, Toyama said. The plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said earlier that the pool was nearly empty, which would cause the rods to overheat and emit even more radiation.

    Defense Minister Toshifumi Kitazawa told reporters that emergency workers had no choice but to try the water dumps before it was too late.

    A high-pressure fire truck from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department is also set to begin spraying water onto the No. 4 reactor building.

    Also Thursday officials said that they were close to completing a new power line that could restore the reactors' cooling systems.

    Naoki Tsunoda, a TEPCO spokesman, said the new power line to the plant was almost finished and that officials planned to try it "as soon as possible." Kyodo News said that could be as early as Thursday afternoon.

    The new line could 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 company is also trying to repair its existing disabled power line.

    US warns of dire situation
    On Wednesday, the United States expressed increasing alarm about the the threat posed by nuclear crisis, with its top nuclear energy chief suggesting that one crippled reactor was in danger of a complete meltdown.

    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."

    Japan says it's keeping its people safe
    Yukio Edano, Japanese chief cabinet secretary, said Thursday at a news conference that water was depleted in Unit 4 and acknowledged a time lag in reporting information to U.S. authorities.

    However, a wider evacuation area is not needed, he said. If it were, Japan would issue a national warning for people to evacuate.

    "We as nationals want to make sure our people are safe, and will take appropriate actions," Edano said.

    He also said President Barack Obama phoned Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and during the 30-minute call pledged U.S. support for the nuclear plants and other long- and short-term relief efforts. They also promised to stay in close touch during the crisis.

    The U.S. Air Force said an unmanned drone was scheduled to fly over the Fukushima plant Thursday to collect data and images for the Japanese government, Lt. Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, said in an e-mail reported by Bloomberg.

    The drone, best known for missions over Iraq and Afghanistan and which started flying anti-drug missions over Mexico last month, "is being used to help assess damage to towns, industrial infrastructure, and other facilities affected during the earthquake and flood waters," U.S. Pacific Air Forces said.

    Map: Interactive: Explore Japan's earthquake (on this page)

    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.

    Late Wednesday, government officials said they'd asked special police units to bring in water cannons — normally used to quell rioters — to spray water onto the spent fuel storage pool at Unit 4.

    How much radiation is dangerous?

    The cannons are thought to be strong enough to allow emergency workers to remain a safe distance from the complex while still being able to get water into the pool, said Minoru Ogoda of Japan's nuclear safety agency.

    Emperor cites 'difficult days'
    Friday's magnitude 9 quake and tsunami pulverized Japan's northeastern coast.

    The tsunami destroyed the Dai-ichi complex's backup power system and left operators unable to properly cool nuclear fuel. The 180 emergency workers have been working in shifts to manually pump seawater into the reactors.

    Japan's emperor, in an unprecedented made-for-TV speech, called on the country to work together.

    "It is important that each of us shares the difficult days that lie ahead," said Akihito, 77. "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."

    Health experts said panic over radiation leaks from the Dai-ichi plant was also diverting attention from other threats to survivors of the quake and tsunami, such as the cold or access to fresh water.

    Millions of Japanese have been with little food and water in heavy snow and rain since Friday. In some towns, long lines of cars waited outside the few open gas stations, with others lined up at rice-vending machines.

    "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 NHK. He criticized preparations for an evacuation if conditions worsen, and said centers do not have enough hot meals and basic necessities.

    More than 5,100 people are officially listed as dead, but officials believe the toll will climb to well over 10,000 as about 9,700 are missing. Police say more than 452,000 people are staying in temporary shelters such as school gymnasiums.

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    Focus on Fukushima
    A radiation spike Wednesday at the complex was believed to have come from Unit 3. But officials also acknowledged that they were far from sure what was going on at the four most troubled reactors, including Unit 3, in part because high radiation levels made it difficult to get very close.

    While white smoke was seen rising Wednesday above Unit 3, officials could not ascertain the source. They said it could be spewing from the reactor's spent fuel pool — cooling tanks for used nuclear rods — or may have been from damage to the reactor's containment vessel, the protective shell of thick concrete.

    Masahisa Otsuki, an official with TEPCO, said officials are most concerned about the spent fuel pools, which are not encased in protective shells.

    "We haven't been able to get any of the latest data at any spent fuel pools. We don't have the latest water levels, temperatures, none of the latest information for any of the four reactors," he said.

    In the city of Fukushima, meanwhile, 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.

    An entire floor of one of the prefecture's office buildings had been taken over by people tracking evacuations, power needs, death tolls and food supplies.

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

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

    Given the reported radiation levels, John Price, an Australian-based nuclear safety expert, said he saw few health risks for the general public so far. But he said he was surprised by how little information the Japanese were sharing.

    "We don't know even the fundamentals of what's happening, what's wrong, what isn't working. We're all guessing," he said. "I would have thought they would put on a panel of experts every two hours."

    Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department called for American citizens living within 50 miles of the plant to evacuate the area or take shelter indoors. It authorized voluntary evacuations for dependents of government employees in Japan, and chartered aircraft to help private U.S.citizens wishing to leave the country.

    U.S. military relief crews were banned from going within 50 miles of the plant and are receiving anti-radiation pills before missions to areas of possible radiation exposure, the Pentagon said.

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

    Video: Conflicting reports stoke radiation fears

    1. Closed captioning of: Conflicting reports stoke radiation fears

      >>> about this apparent disagreement between the u.s. and the japanese, let's look at what the head of the u.s. nuclear regulatory commission said today to congress about one of those fukushima reactors.

      >> we believe that secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent fuel pool . and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high.

      >> in other words, the americans saying that it's worse than japanese officials have let on. all of this leads us to a chief environmental affairs correspondent, anne thompson . anne, we thought something was up when the americans wanted their people further away from it than the japanese standard earlier today. what's behind this apparent disagreement?

      >> reporter: well, brian, it's a crisis in the confidence in the information they are getting from the japanese government . in fact tonight tokyo electric power company is denying that that spent fuel pool is indeed dry. it says that everything is stable at reactor 4. and you have the head of public affairs for the nrc, the nuclear regulatory commission , who's trying to walk back some of mr. jazco's comments today saying they understand the japanese are denying that there is a problem at reactor 4. they're trying to run that to ground. but what he's saying is they are erring on the side of caution. they're trying to be very conservative because this is a very serious situation. brian.

      >> anne thompson in our london bureau tonight. anne, thanks.

    Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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    1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
    2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
    3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
    4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
    5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
    6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
    7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
    8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
    9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Map: Japan earthquake

    1. Above: Map Japan earthquake
    2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
    3. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
      Ho / Reuters
      Timeline Crisis in Japan

    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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