Image: Japan Struggles To Deal With Nuclear Crisis And Tsunami Aftermath
Chris McGrath  /  Getty Images
A replica of the Statue of Liberty stands amid the rubble of Ishinomaki, Japan, pictured Friday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/19/2011 5:25:03 AM ET 2011-03-19T09:25:03

Key details:

  • Crews work to restore electricity to crippled plant
  • Prime minister urges nation to unite
  • Hundreds of thousands homeless
  • Japan raises severity of crisis
  • Radiation found in milk, spinach

TOKYO — Emergency workers racing to cool dangerously overheated uranium fuel scrambled Saturday to connect Japan's crippled reactors to a new power line, with electricians fighting tsunami-shattered equipment to restart the complex's cooling systems.

Though the power line reached the complex Friday, making the final link without setting off a spark and potentially an explosion means methodically working through badly damaged and deeply complex electrical systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant on Japan's northeast coast.

"Most of the motors and switchboards were submerged by the tsunami and they cannot be used," said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Backup power systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant had been improperly protected, said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, leaving them vulnerable to the tsunami that savaged the northeastern coast on March 11 and set off the nuclear emergency.

Meanwhile, officials said radiation above levels considered safe had been found in milk and spinach.

"It's not like if you ate it right away you would be harmed," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. "It would not be good to continue to eat it for some time."

Story: Food contamination worries Japan after disasters

The failure of Fukushima's backup power systems, which were supposed to keep cooling systems going in the aftermath of the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake, let uranium fuel overheat and were a "main cause" of the crisis, Nishiyama said.

"I cannot say whether it was a human error, but we should examine the case closely," he told reporters.

A spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns and runs the plants, said that while the generators themselves were not directly exposed to the waves, some of the electrical support equipment was outside. The complex was designed to protect against tsunamis of up to 5 meters (16 feet), he said. Media reports say the tsunami was at least 6 meters (20 feet) high when it struck Fukushima.

Motoyasu Tamaki also acknowledged that the complex was old, and might not have been as well-equipped as newer facilities.

Operators of the plant, which have prompted global worries of radiation leaks, hope to have power reconnected to four of the complex's six units on Saturday, and another on Sunday. However, even once the power is reconnected, it is not clear if the cooling systems will still work.

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.

Underlining authorities' desperation, fire trucks sprayed water overnight in a crude tactic to cool reactor No. 3, considered the most critical because of its use of mixed oxides, or mox, containing both uranium and highly toxic plutonium.

An initial report Saturday that a survivor of Japan's powerful earthquake and tsunami had been rescued from the rubble of a house in Kesennuma city in northern Japan eight days after the disaster turned out to be false, Kyodo news agency reported. The man in fact had been to an evacuation center already and returned to his ruined home when he was discovered by rescue workers, Kyodo reported.

Japan has raised the severity rating of the nuclear crisis to level 5 from 4 on the seven-level International Nuclear Event Scale, putting it on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, although some experts say it is more serious. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, the world's worst nuclear accident, was a 7 on that scale.

The State Department late Friday expanded the area for voluntary evacuations for family members of U.S. personnel in Japan to 13 more prefectures. A warning Wednesday named Tokyo, Nagoya and Yokahama. The warning also authorized departure for family members at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan

Thousands dead, missing and suffering
The operation to avert large-scale radiation has overshadowed the humanitarian aftermath of the 9.0-magnitude quake and 33-foot tsunami that struck on March 11. Japan's police agency said nearly 7,200 are dead and more than 10,900 are missing.

Some of the missing may have been out of the region at the time of the disaster. In addition, the massive power of the tsunami likely sucked many people out to sea.

The Japanese government Friday welcomed ever-growing help from the United States in hopes of preventing a complete meltdown.

Video: Glimpses of hope amid grief (on this page)

"In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and provided it faster," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said on Friday.

Later, Prime Minister Naoto Kan urged the nation to unite.

"We will rebuild Japan from scratch. We must all share this resolve," he said in a nationally televised address, calling the crises a "great test for the Japanese people."

As day broke Saturday, steam rose from Unit 3, an unwelcome development that signaled continuing problems. Emergency crews faced two continuing challenges: cooling the nuclear fuel in reactors where energy is generated and cooling the adjacent pools where thousands of used nuclear fuel rods are stored in water.

Video: Nuclear alert level raised in Japan (on this page)

Crucial to the effort to regain control over the plant is laying a new power line to the complex, allowing operators to restore cooling systems.

Even once the power is reconnected, it is not clear if the cooling systems will still work.

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.

A U.S. military fire truck was among a fleet of Japanese vehicles that sprayed water into Unit 3, according to air force Chief of Staff Shigeru Iwasaki, sending tons of water arcing over the facility in an attempt to prevent nuclear fuel from overheating and emitting dangerous levels of radiation.

Additionally, the U.S. conducted drone flights over the reactor site, strapping sophisticated pods onto aircraft to measure radiation aloft.

American technical experts also are exchanging information with officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. which owns the plants, as well as with Japanese government agencies.

Sirens wailed along the devastated northeast coastline and residents observed a moment of silence on Friday to mark one week since the prosperous country was stricken.

Quake risk at nuclear plants

Nearly 7,000 people have been confirmed killed in the double natural disaster, which turned whole towns into waterlogged and debris-shrouded wastelands. Another 10,700 people are missing with many feared dead.

Some 390,000 people, including many among Japan's aging population, are homeless and battling near-freezing temperatures in shelters in northeastern coastal areas.

Food, water, medicine and heating fuel are in short supply.

"Everything is gone, including money," said Tsukasa Sato, a 74-year-old barber with a heart condition, as he warmed his hands in front of a stove at a shelter for the homeless.

Health officials and the U.N. atomic watchdog have said radiation levels in the capital Tokyo were not harmful. But the city has seen an exodus of tourists, expatriates and many Japanese, who fear a blast of radioactive material.

"I'm leaving because my parents are terrified. I personally think this will turn out to be the biggest paper tiger the world has ever seen," said Luke Ridley, 23, from London as he sat at Narita international airport using his laptop.

"I'll probably come back in about a month."

Though there has been alarm around the world, experts have been warning there is little risk of radiation at dangerous levels spreading to other nations.

The U.S. government said "minuscule" amounts of radiation were detected in California consistent with a release from Japan's damaged facility, but there were no levels of concern.

Amid their distress, Japanese were proud of the 279 nuclear plant workers toiling in the wreckage, wearing masks, goggles and protective suits sealed by duct tape.

"My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing," Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told Reuters.

The plight of the homeless also worsened following a cold snap that brought heavy snow to the worst-affected areas.

Nearly 290,000 households in the north were still without electricity, officials said, and the government said about 940,000 households lacked running water.

Aid groups say most victims are getting help, but there are pockets of acute suffering.

"We've seen children suffering with the cold, and lacking really basic items like food and clean water," Stephen McDonald of Save the Children said in a statement on Friday.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Glimpses of hope amid grief

  1. Closed captioning of: Glimpses of hope amid grief

    against heart attack or stroke: ] it's my right to breathe right.

    >>> a moment of silence in the little tokyo neighborhood of l.a. last night, as there was in tokyo, marking the exact one-week anniversary of the quake that caused the tsunami that caused the nuclear emergency that will haunt japan for our lifetime. the people gathered to pause, to chant, some shared stories about what had happened back home and how it had affected their lives and families. and what a week it's been. when you think about it, what a year it's been so far. but this story we've been covering in japan has also offered its share of lessons. some have even found a way to find inspiration. among our correspondents on the story, we hear tonight from nbc's lee cowan.

    >> reporter: in just a single week in japan , the phrase " worst case scenario " has been redefined. words like "unimaginable,"" unthinkable," even "unacceptable" are thrown b even they don't convey the escalating horror. yet rising out of it all is evidence the human spirit with overcome even this. there's proof in the sacrifice of these chopper pilots, braving radiation as they fly low over leaking reactors. there's proof in the relief workers, who have rushed from more than 100 countries to toil in the snow and ruin. and most of all, there's proof of the workers inside that plant, the unseen heroes known as the fukushima 50, struggling to avert a meltdown. bravery comes in odd places these days. especially where thing seem to have returned to normal. with no fuel, patrons at this restaurant are facing the real possibility of being trapped, if radiation comes. there's no complaining, though. instead, just a quiet determination.

    >> if they told you you had to leave right now, what would you do?

    >> we have to die.

    >> reporter: we have to die. a kind of stchlt toicism even in our viewer e-mail. our families are asking us, begging us to leave, one woman wrote, but part of me doesn't want to turn my back on the country that i love. a week ago japan was brought to its knees, and yet so many are still standing tall. maybe this trio of disasters did redefine " worst case scenario ," but it also offered glimpses of the best the human spirit has to offer. lee cowan, nbc news, london.

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

loading photos...
  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
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

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.)

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments