Image: Fukushima's fourth reactor building
Tepco  /  AFP - Getty Images
This handout image released by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) on March 17, shows the damage to TEPCO's No.1 Fukushima nuclear power plant's fourth reactor building.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/18/2011 12:02:35 AM ET 2011-03-18T04:02:35

Key details:

  • Officials working to fix power cable to stricken reactors
  • Smoke seen billowing from Unit 2 reactor building
  • Tokyo asks U.S. government for technical help
  • American nuclear official defends 50-mile evacuation zone
  • Head of UN atomic watchdog says he wants to visit site

Japanese engineers raced to restore a power cable to a quake-ravaged nuclear power plant on Friday in the hope of restarting pumps needed to pour cold water on overheating fuel rods and avert a catastrophic release of radiation.

Officials said they hoped to fix the cable to two reactors on Friday and to two others by Sunday, but said work would stop in the morning to allow helicopters and fire trucks to resume pouring water on the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, about 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

"Preparatory work has so far not progressed as fast as we had hoped," an official of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) told a news briefing, adding that engineers had to be constantly checked for radiation levels.

'Unit 3 is our utmost priority'
Smoke billowed from Unit 2 at the plant, and its cause was not known. An explosion hit the building on Tuesday, possibly damaging a crucial cooling chamber that sits below the reactor core.

More urgent, Japan's chief government spokesman said, was the adjacent Unit 3. Fuel rods there may have been partially exposed, and without enough water, the rods may heat further and possibly spew radiation.

"Dealing with Unit 3 is our utmost priority," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters.

Edano said that Tokyo is asking the U.S. government for help and the two are discussing the specifics. "We are coordinating with the U.S. government as to what the U.S. can provide and what people really need," Edano said.

He said crews planned to use fire trucks Friday to spray water more water on Unit 3.

The current evacuation perimeter around the Fukushima plant is appropriate, Edano said.

Video: Physicist: Helicopter drops 'like squirt guns against a forest fire'

Emergency workers seemed to try everything they could think of Thursday to douse one of the overheated nuclear reactors: helicopters, heavy-duty fire trucks, even water cannons normally used to quell rioters. But they couldn't be sure any of it was easing the peril at the tsunami-ravaged facility.

Three reactors have had at least partial meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, where wisps of white steam rose from the stricken units Friday morning. But Japanese and U.S. officials believe a greater danger exists in the pools used to store spent nuclear fuel: Fuel rods in one pool were believed to be at least partially exposed, if not dry, and others were in danger. Without water, the rods could heat up and spew radiation.

It could take days and "possibly weeks" to get the complex under control, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jazcko said. He defended the U.S. decision to recommend a 50-mile evacuation zone for its citizens, a much stronger measure than Japan has taken.

A senior official with the U.N.'s nuclear safety agency said there had been "no significant worsening" at the nuclear plant but that the situation remained "very serious." Graham Andrew told reporters in Vienna that nuclear fuel rods in two reactors were only about half covered with water, and in a third they were also not completely submerged.

If the fuel is not fully covered, rising temperatures and pressure will increase the chances of complete meltdowns that would release much larger amounts of radioactive material than the failing plant has emitted so far.

Low levels of radiation have been detected well beyond Tokyo, which is 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of the plant, but hazardous levels have been limited to the plant itself. Still, the crisis triggered by last week's earthquake and tsunami has forced thousands to evacuate and drained Tokyo's normally vibrant streets of life, its residents either leaving town or holing up in their homes.

The official death toll from the disasters stood at 5,692 as of Friday morning, with 9,522 missing, the national police agency said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency chief, Yukiya Amano, was in Japan Friday with top Japanese officials and to visit the area struck by the devastating earthquake and tsunami a week ago.

Amano was accompanied by a four-member team of experts. He said: "We see it as an extremely serious accident. The international community is extremely concernced about this issue, and it's important to cooperate in dealing with it."

Obama assures Americans on risks
President Barack Obama appeared on television to assure Americans that officials do not expect harmful amounts of radiation to reach the U.S. or its territories. He also said the U.S. was offering Japan any help it could provide, and said he was asking for a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear plant safety.

Japanese and American assessments of the crisis have differed, with the plant's owner denying Jazcko's report Wednesday that Unit 4's spent fuel pool was dry and that anyone who gets close to the plant could face potentially lethal doses of radiation. But a Tokyo Electric Power Co. executive moved closer to the U.S. position Thursday.

"Considering the amount of radiation released in the area, the fuel rods are more likely to be exposed than to be covered," Yuichi Sato said.

Another utility official said Wednesday that the company has been unable to get information such as water levels and temperatures from any of the spent fuel pools in the four most troubled reactors.

Workers have been dumping seawater when possible to control temperatures at the plant since the quake and tsunami knocked out power to its cooling systems, but they tried even more desperate measures on Unit 3's reactor and cooling pool.

Helicopters dump water
Two Japanese military CH-47 Chinook helicopters dumped seawater on Unit 3 on Thursday morning, defense ministry spokeswoman Kazumi Toyama said. The choppers doused the reactor with at least four loads of water in just the first 10 minutes, though television footage showed much of it appearing to disperse in the wind.

Chopper crews flew missions of about 40 minutes each to limit their radiation exposure, passing over the reactor with loads of about 2,000 gallons (7,500 liters) of water. Another 9,000 gallons (35,000 liters) of water were blasted from military trucks with high-pressure sprayers used to extinguish fires at plane crashes, though the vehicles had to stay safely back from areas deemed to have too much radiation.

Special police units with water cannons were also tried, but they could not reach the targets from safe distances and had to pull back, said Yasuhiro Hashimoto, a spokesman for Japan's nuclear safety agency.

Unit 3's reactor uses a fuel that combines plutonium, better known as an ingredient in nuclear weapons, and reprocessed uranium. The presence of this mixed oxide fuel, or MOX, means potentially that two very harmful radioactive products could be released into the environment.

Tokyo Electric Power said it believed workers were making headway in staving off a catastrophe both with the spraying and, especially, with efforts to complete an emergency power line to restart the plant's own electric cooling systems. Workers hope to fix a power cable to two reactors on Friday and to two others by Sunday, officials said.

"This is a first step toward recovery," said Teruaki Kobayashi, a facilities management official at the power company. He said radiation levels "have somewhat stabilized at their lows" and that some of the spraying had reached its target, with one reactor emitting steam.

"We are doing all we can as we pray for the situation to improve," Kobayashi said. Authorities planned to spray again Friday, and Kobayashi said: "Choices are limited. We just have to stick to what we can do most quickly and efficiently."

Focus on spent fuel rods
Four of the plant's six reactors have seen fires, explosions, damage to the structures housing reactor cores, partial meltdowns or rising temperatures. Officials also recently said temperatures are rising even in the spent fuel pools of the other two reactors.

The troubles at the nuclear complex were set in motion by last Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, which knocked out power and destroyed backup generators needed for the reactors' cooling systems. That added a nuclear crisis on top of twin natural disasters that likely killed well more than 10,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

Mario V. Bonaca, a physicist sits on an advisory committee to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said he believes the focus of the effort has shifted to the spent fuel pools. "I understand that they've controlled the cooling of the cores," said Bonaca, who said he was basing his understanding on NRC and industry sources.

The storage pools need a constant source of cooling water. Even when removed from reactors, uranium rods are still extremely hot and must be cooled for months, possibly longer, to prevent them from heating up again and emitting radioactivity.

More than 20 at the stricken plant have been injured, more than 20 have been exposed to radiation and two have gone missing during the battle to prevent a nuclear disaster, officials said Thursday.

The top U.S. nuclear regulator has warned that emergency staff at the stricken plant would face potentially "lethal doses" of radiation "in a very short space of time."

Plant workers injured, contaminated
The IAEA released the injury and contamination figures in a statement, saying they were based on information from Japanese authorities.

It said a subcontractor had suffered broken legs, two employees of power company TEPCO had sustained minor injuries and another contractor was in an unknown condition in hospital.

In addition to the two missing, two had been "suddenly taken ill." It also said four people suffered minor injuries in a March 11 explosion and 11 people were hurt in another explosion on March 14.

Quake risk at nuclear plants

Under the heading "radiological contamination," the statement one worker had received exposure and was taken to "an offsite center."

It said 17 workers had got radioactive material on their faces, but were not taken to a hospital because the exposure was low. Two police officers exposed to radiation were decontaminated and authorities were investigating the exposure of a number of firefighters.

Despite the dangers, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported  staff from TEPCO and other industry firms were volunteering to join in efforts to stabilize the reactors.

Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor of the Department of Radiology at University of Tokyo Hospital, put it starkly: "I don't know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war."

Experts note, though, that radiation levels drop quickly with distance from the complex. While elevated radiation has been detected well outside the evacuation zone, experts say those levels are not dangerous.

Some Americans evacuated
U.S. officials were taking no chances. In Washington, the State Department warned U.S. citizens to consider leaving the country and offered voluntary evacuation to family members and dependents of U.S. personnel in the cities of Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya.

Video: What happens if nuclear rods melt down?

The first flight left Thursday, with fewer than 100 people onboard, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy said. Plans also call for airlifting several thousand family members of U.S. armed forces personnel as well as nonessential staff stationed in Japan in the coming days.

The U.S. evacuation zone is far bigger than that established by Japan, which has called for a 12-mile zone and has told those within 20 miles to stay indoors. Daniel B. Poneman, U.S. deputy secretary of energy, said at the briefing that his agency agreed with the 50-mile zone — but said Japan's measures were also prudent.

A graphic from another U.N. agency forecasting the possible trajectory of the radioactive cloud shows a moving plume reaching Southern California on Friday after racing across the Pacific and swiping the Aleutian Islands.

But IAEA officials and independent experts emphasized that the radiation level was already low outside of the immediate vicinity of the crippled reactor and would dissipate so strongly by the time it reached the U.S. coastlines that it would pose no health risk whatsoever to residents there.

Any detectable radiation on Friday "could be coming from your own reactors in California," said physics Prof. Paddy Regan at the University of Surrey at Guilfold in Britain. A senior IAEA official who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media, noted that even in Tokyo, "radiation was at background levels."

On Friday, the Group of Seven agreed to join in rare concerted intervention to restrain a run-away yen, hoping to calm global markets after a wild week of often panic selling.

Japan's Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said the Bank of Japan had begun to sell yen at 12:00 p.m. GMT and other central banks from the G7 would intervene as their markets opened.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Battle wages on to stave off nuclear meltdown

  1. Closed captioning of: Battle wages on to stave off nuclear meltdown

    >>> good evening. while the japanese deal with a staggering humanitarian crisis, they are now engaging in a last-resort effort to stop perhaps multiple meltdowns at nuclear reactors . and today president obama had to reassure the american public that these fears of some sort of radioactive cloud coming all the way across the pacific to the west coast just aren't true. here's the latest now on the disaster in japan. desperate measures now under way to lessen the nuclear disaster . while tonight japanese officials are saying they have rare good news of some levels stabilizing, first today we got the first look at the reactors close up. this new video of a helicopter fly-over showing the destruction. then there are the numbers. just under 5700 dead, just under 10,000 missing and over three-quarters of a million people surviving without electricity in near freezing cold. thousands of people, including americans, continue to flee japan. we begin our reporting on all of it tonight with nbc's robert bazell in tokyo. bob, good evening.

    >> reporter: brian, the international atomic energy commission is reporting that a power cable has been successfully brought to those reactors, and that will start to get pumps flowing water into the reactors. that's very encouraging news in this metropolis of 30 million people that has been downwind of those reactors, but the situation remains frightening. dramatic pictures on japanese television showed military helicopters dropping water on one of the damaged reactors. the water often missing its mark. the company that owns the plant said the drastic move which exposed the pilots to radiation was necessary, because unused fuel rods like these usually stored under deep water were at least partially exposed, vastly increasing the chance of a catastrophic release of radiation.

    >> these spent fuel rods had as much or more dangerous material in them than the fuel in the reactors.

    >> police began the water spraying operation in the evening but could not reach the building.

    >> reporter: in the next move, the company pumped water from military fire trucks , usually used to combat airplane fires, to shoot water from a safe distance. the entire operation is a race to get water into the severely damaged reactors before the fuel explodes. so far the radiation levels have been high enough to only be a serious threat to the workers at the site. still, the japanese government has ordered people living within 12 miles of the site to evacuate. those within 18 miles to stay indoors. the u.s. government says its residents within 50 miles should leave.

    >> we think it's a prudent measure to follow the evacuation based on how we would handle a situation like that in the united states .

    >> reporter: there are six reactors at the site. in unit 1 an explosion destroyed part of an outer building. in unit 2 there may have been an explosion rupturing the containment facility and possibly letting radioactive fuel escape. unit 3 was the target of today's water drops. it too had an explosion of the outer building and it also has exposed fuel rods. unit 4 was shut down for maintenance when the earthquake struck, but it became the subject of a controversy when the head of the u.s. nuclear regulatory commission said its stored fuel rods were totally exposed. units 5 and 6, which are also out of service, may also have problems with their used fuel rods. experts say unit 3 is especially dangerous, because it has recycled fuel that contains plutonium, an even greater health threat than the uranium in the other reactors. the first of that electricity, brian, will go to unit 2. unit 3 still needs to have that spraying, which will continue during the day, so the situation is not over yet, but it does look a little bit better for the first time.

    >> all right, bob bazell in tokyo to start us off. bob, 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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