Video: New blast hits crippled Japan nuke plant

  1. Transcript of: New blast hits crippled Japan nuke plant

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Good morning. Breaking news. A surge in radiation levels at that crippled nuclear plant in Japan forces emergency crews to evacuate overnight, and while they're now getting back to work there are new fears that those 50 heroic workers could be running out of options today, Wednesday, March 16th , 2011 .

    Announcer: From NBC News , this is a special edition of TODAY: DISASTER IN JAPAN , with Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira , live from Studio 1A in Rockefeller Plaza .

    LAUER: And good morning, welcome to TODAY on a Wednesday morning. I'm Matt Lauer .

    SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, co-host: Good morning, everyone. I'm Savannah Guthrie . Meredith is on assignment. And you just think about the pressure that those workers must be under, the sacrifice they may be making. They're being dubbed the Fukushima 50, one of the last lines of defense against an all-out meltdown.

    LAUER: Yeah. And so imagine the concern that it caused when those workers were temporarily pulled out of that plant overnight. The decision came after radiation levels spiked for a short time. Another concern: a second fire, reactor number 4 today, where spent fuel rods are being stored.

    GUTHRIE: And in a rare appearance, Japan 's emperor delivered an unprecedented televised address, saying he was, quote, "deeply worried," but urged people not to give up hope. We're going to have the very latest just ahead.

    LAUER: Meanwhile, people are still moving away from those reactors. Our own Lester Holt and his crew made their way from Sendai to Tokyo overnight. Now, as they arrived at their hotel, they were screened for radiation , and we should tell you they did find trace amounts on their shoes. Lester 's going to tell us about that in a couple of minutes.

    MATT LAUER, co-host: But first, he has the latest on the ongoing nuclear crisis. Lester , good morning.

    LESTER HOLT reporting: Matt , good morning. You've got to hand it to those 50 workers there who are trying their best, but at every turn the cascading series of events throw more obstacles in their way. And right now all this seems to threaten to overwhelm them.

    Offscreen Voice: White smoke billowing from...

    HOLT: It is a scene playing out again today on Japanese television , trouble at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant .

    Voice: We do not know if it's caused by the...

    HOLT: But more information kept coming, the news only getting more confusing.

    Unidentified Man #1: We have urged them to evacuate.

    HOLT: Earlier today Japanese officials announced that operations at the plant had been suspended, all personnel on site forced to withdraw because of concern about what were thought to be dangerously high radiation levels at the plant . But later, workers were allowed back in. The situation at the power plant is growing more dire each day. Satellite imagery reveals the physical damage to the plant 's reactors from three explosions in the last four days.

    But it is what you can't see that is so troubling: Radiation is entering the air. A crack in the containment dome on the number 2 reactor is causing a radiation leak, and a second fire broke out today at the number 4 reactor. The building's outer wall collapsed. Here, spent nuclear fuel rods stored in water are also releasing radiation .

    Mr. KEN BERGERON (Nuclear Safety Analyst): Just the spent fuel accident would be worthy of worldwide concern, and we had that on top of three reactors that are having core damage going on. It's a very, very bad situation.

    HOLT: A bad situation growing worse for the people of northeast Japan , still reeling from the devastation that surrounds them as people try to find the basic essentials to survive. They are also lining up to be scanned, being checked for radiation poisoning . One hundred eighty miles northeast of us here in Tokyo , the Fukushima plant has become its own ground zero. Seventy thousand residents living within 12 miles of the plant have been forced to evacuate, and the thousands living within 19 miles have been told to remain indoors. Officials tried to calm already rattled nerves, saying the amount of radiation released so far poses no health hazard to anyone outside the evacuation zone. But for an already weary country, the official pronouncements are beginning to wear thin.

    Unidentified Man #2: Nobody knows, you know, the truth, what's happening.

    HOLT: Beyond the problems at Fukushima , there's a mounting humanitarian crisis facing Japan , almost a half million people living in shelters, many without food, water or medicine. And then there is the search and recovery effort, with death toll estimates now exceeding 10,000. There are so many bodies still to recover, countries like the United States joining in the grim task.

    Mr. JOSEPH KNERR (Fairfax County Search and Rescue): I wonder how the locals, the people who live here are to recover from it.

    HOLT: But there are glimmers of hope in this sea of despair. On Tuesday a young man was pulled from the rubble in Miyagi .

    Unidentified Man #3:

    HOLT: 'People don't die easily,' this rescuer says. 'That is why we are doing our best and continuing to search.' For all they have lost, the people of Japan have not lost hope. Japan is not only accepting US help in terms of aid and recovery, but they are also going to accept the help of some US nuclear experts who are en route here. Meantime, Japanese officials within the last hour or so continue to say that the radiation levels are stable at the plant . They continue to work the problem. They have abandoned the idea of a fly-over to drop water on reactor number 3 , and instead will try to inject water from the ground. But again, they say radioactivity levels right now, Matt , are stable at the site.

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/16/2011 1:43:15 PM ET 2011-03-16T17:43:15

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 a second reactor that may have ruptured.

In a sign of desperation, crews planned to try to cool spent nuclear fuel at one of the facility's reactors with water cannons, 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, triggering fear in the capital and international alarm.

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.

Video: Traces of radiation found on news crew (on this page)

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.

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 when asked about the comments. "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 and needed more information from authorities there. He earlier urged the Japanese government to provide better information to the IAEA about the crisis.

A Pentagon spokesperson said that all U.S. forces operating in Japan must now stay at least 50 miles from the Fukushima plant, unless they have special approval to be closer.

This decision comes amid the revelation that several more U.S. Navy air crew members tasked with flying within 70 nautical miles of Fukushima were given potassium iodide tablets Wednesday. The measures were seen as precautions, and the Pentagon said no U.S. forces have shown signs of radiation poisoning.

Meanwhile, workers cleared debris to build a road so fire trucks could reach reactor No. 4 at the Daiichi complex in Fukushima, 150 miles north of Tokyo. Flames were no longer visible at the building housing the reactor.

Story: Timeline: Japan's unfolding nuclear crisis

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.

Last-ditch efforts
A military helicopter may be used again to try to drop water and troops mobilized to help pump water by land, he said.

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.

"This is a slow-moving nightmare," said Thomas Neff, a physicist and uranium-industry analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Pentagon was sending more equipment to help Japan control the stricken reactors.

Several water pumps were being sent from U.S. bases around Japan, and the U.S. had already sent two fire trucks to the area to be operated by Japanese firefighters, said Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

U.S. military assistance so far has focused on delivering relief supplies and helping with logistics and search and rescue missions.

However, pilots could not fly helicopters off the deck of aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan until late afternoon Wednesday because of poor visibility.

The 7th Fleet said that only 15 flights with relief supplies were launched from the eight-ship carrier group, about half as many as the 29 flights reported the previous day to deliver food, water, blankets and other supplies.

Meanwhile, 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."

Video: Expert: U.S. not prepared for nuclear crisis (on this page)

$200 billion losses feared
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 $125 billion and $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.

Story: What you need to know about the twin disasters in Japan

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.

Russia said it planned to evacuate families of diplomats on Friday.

Serbia and Croatia advised their citizens to leave Japan, while Croatia said it was moving its embassy from Tokyo to Osaka because of the nuclear crisis.

How much radiation is dangerous?

More than 3,000 Chinese have already been evacuated from Japan's northeast to Niigata on Japan's western coast, according to Xinhua News Agency.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos briefed reporters Wednesday, saying American officials were carefully monitoring radiation levels.

"If we assess that the radiation poses a threat to public health, we will share that information and provide relevant guidance immediately," Roos said.

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.

At the Fukushima plant, authorities have spent days desperately trying to prevent water 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.

Skeleton crews
Concern has mounted that the skeleton crews dealing with the crisis might not be big enough or were exhausted after working for days since the earthquake damaged the facility.

Authorities withdrew 750 workers for a time on Tuesday, briefly leaving only 50.

All those remaining were pulled out for almost an hour on Wednesday because radiation levels were too high, but they were later allowed to return.

By the end of the day, about 180 were working at the plant.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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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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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