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.

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 3/17/2011 7:19:04 PM ET 2011-03-17T23:19:04

The first U.S.-chartered aircraft left Japan Thursday with about 100 people aboard headed for Taiwan and another flight is anticipated on Friday, the U.S. State Department said.

Under Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy said the passengers included family members of U.S. government employees and a small number of private U.S. citizens who have chosen to depart Japan due to the ongoing nuclear crisis.

Thousands of family members of U.S. service personnel in Japan were offered flights out of the country Thursday as radiation continued to seep from a stricken nuclear plant.

The Pentagon said all families at bases on Japan's main island, Honshu, would be given the chance to leave.

For the U.S. military, which has more than 55,000 troops in and around Japan, as well as more than 43,000 dependents and thousands more civilian defense employees, the potential scale of the voluntary departure could be enormous.

"Don't panic," Capt, Eric Gardner, the commanding officer of Naval Air Facility Atsugi, about 150 miles from the Fukushima nuclear plant, said in a video-message for base personnel.

Gardner said the military would able to take about 10,000 people a day out of the country initially.

"Within the next 24 hours, there will be Air Force cargo, Air Force passenger planes landing here at Atsugi (air base), and taking first women and children out of here, most likely over to Korea for one or two days and then for further transfer to some other place," Gardner said.

The second phase of the plan would involve chartered commercial aircraft to fly out families.

Even as the U.S. military ramps up a massive relief effort, it is also creating new restrictions meant to safeguard troops from the effects of radiation — including by declaring a 50-mile no-go zone for troops around the Fukushima plant.

Atsugi was one of two U.S. naval bases that told personnel and families to limit time outdoors and to shut off external ventilation after detecting higher-than-normal levels of radiation.

The Pentagon also said some U.S. air crews started preventatively taking potassium iodide tablets on missions that were within 70 miles of the plant as a way to guard against effects of radiation.

How much radiation is dangerous?

Potassium iodide can saturate the thyroid gland and prevent the uptake of radioactive iodine. When given before or shortly after exposure, it can reduce risk of cancer in the long term.

Late Wednesday, the U.S. State Department authorized the voluntary departure, including relocation to safe areas within Japan, of about 600 family members of diplomatic staff in Tokyo, Nagoya and Yokohama.

Diplomatic dependents have not been ordered to leave, but the State Department will bear the expense of their transportation if they choose to go, NBC News reported.

Commercial airlines were scrambling to fly thousands of passengers out of Tokyo Thursday.

On a smaller scale, Temple University in Pennsylvania said it was arranging a charter flight to evacuate 200 of its American students currently in Japan, University President Ann Weaver Hart said, according to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The school will cover the cost of the flight.

The students were due to fly to the U.S. through Hong Kong on Saturday. Most of its non-U.S. staff and students, who are mostly Japanese, had decided to stay, Hart said.

The United States has urged its citizens in Japan to consider leaving and warned U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to any part of the country as unpredictable weather and wind conditions risked spreading radioactive contamination.

Joanne Moore, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, told msnbc.com that the government did not know how many Americans were in Japan as they are not required to register with the embassy there.

Video: U.S. weathers ripple effects of Japan crisis

However, according to the Japanese Bureau of Statistics website, there were 52,683 Americans registered as living in Japan as of Dec. 31, 2008.

The State Department has set up an e-mail address — japanemergencyusc@state.gov — at which Americans could seek help leaving the country.

Should a large-scale airborne evacuation begin, the airports there appear to have significant capacity.

Tokyo's Haneda Airport, the main international hub, was the fifth biggest in the world in 2009 in terms of passenger numbers, according to the Airports Council International, handling more than 61.9 million people that year, or just under 170,000 every day.

"Authorized departures" — in which the United States provides its own transportation to get Americans out of a dangerous situation — are relatively rare.

The U.S. government chartered flights to take Americans out of Egypt beginning Jan. 31 and ferries to remove them from Libya beginning Feb. 23.

But the exodus from Japan poses major questions that can't be answered by the experiences in those countries — most significantly whether the United States can conduct an orderly evacuation of so many people from a small and crowded country in the midst of a disaster.

Roughly the same number of Americans — about 50,0000 — were living in Egypt before the demonstrations that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last month.

But the evacuations in Egypt were centered mainly in Cairo, the capital, not the entire country.

The U.S. population in Libya, meanwhile, was only a few thousand before the popular uprising began there last month.

U.S. and Japan disagreeing?
President Barack Obama called Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Wednesday to discuss Japan's efforts to recover from last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami and the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant .

Anxious to safeguard the U.S. relationship with its closest Asian ally, Obama told Kan about the steps the U.S. was taking, shortly before the State Department announced the first evacuations.

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

A message from U.S. Ambassador John Roos urged "as a precaution" that American citizens who live within 50 miles of the Fukushima complex to evacuate the area or to take shelter indoors if safe evacuation is not practical.

This contrasts with the 12-mile mandatory exclusion zone set up by Japan around the power plant. The government is also urging people within 20 miles to stay inside.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of Japan's Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency, said Thursday that there were "two views" among Japanese officials about the state of the power plant's reactors.

Quake risk at nuclear plants

Some agreed with a bleak assessment by top U.S. nuclear regulator Gregory Jaczko that a cooling pool at one reactor had run dry, but others thought it was still having an effect on overheated fuel rods.

Nishiyama said it was understandable that "an official of a foreign government would take the conservative view."

White House spokesman Jay Carney also sought to minimize any rift between the two allies, saying U.S. officials were making their recommendations based on their independent analysis of the data coming out of the region following Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami.

"I will not from here judge the Japanese evaluation of the data," Carney told reporters. "This is what we would do if this incident were happening in the United States."

Until Wednesday, the U.S. had advised its citizens to follow the recommendations of the Japanese government.

The U.S. decision to begin evacuations mirrors moves by countries such as Australia and Germany, who also advised their citizens to consider leaving Tokyo and other earthquake-affected areas.

The Associated Press, Reuters, msnbc.com staff and NBC News' Robert Bazell 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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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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