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 11:15:29 AM ET 2011-03-19T15:15:29

Key details:

  • Government of national unity being considered
  • Hundreds of thousands homeless

TOKYO — One of six tsunami-crippled nuclear reactors appeared to stabilize Saturday as workers raced to restore power to the stricken power plant to prevent a greater catastrophe.

Engineers reported some rare success after fire trucks sprayed water for about three hours on reactor No.3, widely considered the most dangerous at the ravaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex because of its use of highly toxic plutonium.

"The situation there is stabilizing somewhat," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference.

Engineers earlier attached a power cable to the outside of the mangled plant in a desperate attempt to get water pumps going that would cool overheating fuel rods and prevent a deadly radiation leak.

They hope electricity will flow by Sunday to four reactors in the complex about 150 miles north of Tokyo.

Quake risk at nuclear plants

Edano said radiation levels in milk from a Fukushima farm about 18 miles from the plant, and spinach grown in Ibaraki, a neighboring prefecture, exceeded limits set by the government, the first known case of contamination since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that touched off the crisis.

Story: Plans called off for new venting at Japan reactor

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

National unity government
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, facing Japan's biggest disaster since World War Two, sounded out the opposition about forming a government of national unity to deal with a crisis that has left nearly 7,000 people confirmed killed and turned whole towns into waterlogged, debris-strewn wastelands.

Video: US military assists citizens in Japan's hard-hit areas

Another 10,700 people are missing, many feared dead in the disaster, so big that it has sent a shock through global financial markets, with major economies joining forces to calm the Japanese yen.

At the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, officials connected a power cable to the No. 2 reactor and they planned to test power in reactors No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 on Sunday.

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

Nearly 300 engineers got a second diesel generator attached to reactor No. 6 working, the nuclear safety agency said. They used the power to restart cooling pumps on No. 5.

"TEPCO has connected the external transmission line with the receiving point of the plant and confirmed that electricity can be supplied," the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co , said in a statement.

Nearly a mile of cable is being laid before engineers try to crank up the coolers at reactor No.2, followed by numbers 1, 3 and 4 this weekend, company officials said.

"If they are successful in getting the cooling infrastructure up and running, that will be a significant step forward in establishing stability," said Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at U.S.-based FocalPoint Consulting Group.

If that fails, one option is to bury the sprawling 40-year-old plant in sand and concrete to prevent a catastrophic radiation release. The method was used at the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, scene of the world's worst nuclear reactor disaster.

Video: Nuclear alert level raised in Japan

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.

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.

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 16 feet, he said. Media reports say the tsunami was at least 20 feet high when it struck Fukushima.

Japan has raised the severity rating of the nuclear crisis to level 5 from 4 on the seven-level INES international scale, putting it on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. Some experts say it is more serious.

Chernobyl, in Ukraine, was a 7 on that scale.

Humanitarian crisis
The operation to avert large-scale radiation has overshadowed the humanitarian crisis caused by the 9.0-magnitude quake and 33-foot tsunami.

Some 390,000 people, many elderly, are homeless, living in shelters in near-freezing temperatures in northeastern coastal areas.

Food, water, medicine and heating fuel are in short supply and a Worm Moon, when the full moon is closest to Earth, could bring floods to devastated areas.

"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.

In Ishinomaki, a replica of the Statue of Liberty remained standing amid the ruins of the port city in northeastern Japan.

Beside the statue, USA Today reported, was the remains of a wrecked senior care facility, which was swept from more than a mile away by the giant tsunami wave.

Residents there were starting to return to their homes Friday to begin a massive cleanup operation.

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.

Video: TODAY's Holt reflects on trip to Japan

"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.

Officials asked people in the 12-mile "take cover" zone around the power plant to follow some directives when going outside: Drive, don't walk. Wear a mask. Wear long sleeves. Don't go out in the rain.

Though there has been alarm around the world, experts say dangerous levels of radiation are unlikely to spread 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.

Nuke workers lauded
Amid their distress, Japanese took time to laud the 279 nuclear plant workers toiling in the nuclear plant's 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 Group of Seven rich nations succeeded in calming global financial markets in a rare concerted intervention to restrain a soaring yen — the first such joint intervention since the group came to the aid of the newly launched euro in 2000.

Japan's Nikkei share index recovered some lost ground by the end of a week which wiped $350 billion off market capitalization.

The government plans to provide up to $127 billion in cheap loans to help businesses get back on their feet.

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

But the immediate problems remained huge for many people. Nearly 290,000 households in the north still have no electricity and about 940,000 lack 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.

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.

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