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 News and
updated 3/17/2011 3:53:49 PM ET 2011-03-17T19:53:49

Airline passengers who triggered radiation detectors at U.S. airports added to the jitters about potential nuclear contamination from Japan.

But U.S. security officials emphasized that hazardous levels of radiation had not been detected and that the alarms were not unusual and could be caused by commonplace things.

"We get tens of thousands of readings of these kinds of levels every year," a U.S. official told NBC News.

Still, monitoring efforts were heightened Thursday for airline flights, ships, cargo, and mail coming into the U.S. from Japan, security officials said.

"In an exercise of caution and just to make sure that everyone remains safe, we are doing screening of passengers and cargo if there happens to be even a blip in terms of radiation," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said Thursday that passengers from one flight from Tokyo had triggered radiation detectors at O’Hare International Airport, The Chicago Tribune reported.

Daly said federal authorities were handling the situation, according to the newspaper.

"Of course the protection of the person coming off the plane is very important in regards to any radiation, especially within their families and anything else,” Daley said during a news conference, the Tribune reported.

But reported that five or six planes flying into O'Hare from Tokyo in the past 24 hours had tested positive for radiation in the jets' cargo areas.

Radiation detectors also were triggered at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, the New York Post reported.

Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol agents were screening passengers, luggage and mail arriving on flights from Japan at various airports nationwide.

Some other countries, including Taiwan, were also scanning passengers arriving from Japan.

No new measures were deployed because the federal government already monitors incoming traffic for radiation, DHS officials said. But Customs and Border Protection Agents were told to give extra scrutiny to cargo and passengers arriving on flights that originated in Japan.

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"CBP frontline personnel are equipped with personal radiation detectors that can detect the presence of radiological materials. And all airports have more sensitive radiation isotope identification devices to determine both the presence and type of radiation encountered," according to a statement from Customs and Border Protection.

So far, no hazardous radiation levels have been detected, officials said.

Those "blips" are routine. In fact, said a DHS official, more than half a million are detected every year. Low levels of radiation are emitted by medical equipment, ceramic tiles, and kitty litter made from clay. Even passengers who have recently undergone medical treatments involving radioactive isotopes emit enough radiation to trip the highly sensitive detection equipment, the official said.

NBC News correspondent Pete Williams and staff contributed to this report.

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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
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    Timeline Crisis in Japan


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