Video: Japan reports progress at nuke plants

  1. Closed captioning of: Japan reports progress at nuke plants

    >>> to stop the radiation disaster at that nuclear plant north of tokyo is showing some signs of progress tonight, but the nuclear threat is far from over and the newest evidence is in the food supply . nbc's robert bazell now with that part of the story.

    >> reporter: as they struggle to contain the radiation, engineers now have some kind of water supply going at all of the reactors. for now, water temperature and pressure is either holding study or falling in each of them.

    >> translator: we have been making some sure and steady progress.

    >> reporter: but radiation at the site remains high. spreading contamination has been showing up in milk and some vegetables, first spinach, now other leafy vegetables . the government has banned all milk shipments from areas near the rebase, vegetables with low levels of radiation have been found far from the site. and even if the health risks are considered low, there is growing concern. at a tokyo market we spoke with kyoko kanu who told us she is worry about the affects of radiation on her children. another woman has a different attitude, saying she has a duty to help farmers.

    >> to have support each other.

    >> reporter: farmers fear their produce will be rejected, not just in japan but throughout the world a spinach farmer north of tokyo says --

    >> translator: it's the planting season from now on. i don't know what's gonna happen with this radiation but we can't carry on as farmers.

    >> reporter: her concerns maybe justified. we bought our own spinach in the tokyo market and test it had with our own radiationing device, most batches have nothing above the background rate of 1 count per second but one had a rate of 2 counts per second. that's well within safety standards but it's an indication that radiation has spread in the food supply into the market. and yet the real damage may be in perceptions, false brirms all kinds of japanese food being unsafe for spreading around the world.

    >> translator: we wish to bring the nuclear power plant under control as quickly as possible so we can put a stop to the damage that is caused by these rumors.

    >> reporter: it could take weeks or even months to get the reaerngts ur reactors under control to stop the radiation, the

Kaname Muto  /  AP
People shop for produce at a makeshift store in a devastated area of Kesennuma, in northern Japan, on Sunday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/20/2011 11:18:53 PM ET 2011-03-21T03:18:53

Japanese officials reported progress in their battle to gain control over a leaking, tsunami-stricken nuclear complex, though the crisis was far from over, with the discovery of more radiation-tainted vegetables adding to public fears about contaminated food.

The announcement by Japan's Health Ministry late Sunday that tests had detected excess amounts of radioactive elements on canola and chrysanthemum greens marked a low moment in a day that had been peppered with bits of positive news: First, a teenager and his grandmother were found alive nine days after being trapped in their earthquake-shattered home. Then, the operator of the overheated nuclear plant said two of the six reactor units were safely cooled down.

"We consider that now we have come to a situation where we are very close to getting the situation under control," Deputy Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama said.

Disaster at a glance

On Monday, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. resumed the task of laying power cables to the two remaining reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant still without electricity. The company said it may take several days for power to be restored at the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors.

The power company said that temperatures at the six spent fuel-storage pools at the Fukushima nuclear plant were below the boiling point, which suggests that efforts to douse fuel rods at the reactors are working.

At a press conference, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said a specially equipped helicopter above the reactors determined that the pools above the reactors were below 100 degrees centigrade, or 212 Fahrenheit, Bloomberg reported.

“These readings are something that Japanese people can be relieved to hear,” he said.

Still, serious problems remained at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex. Pressure unexpectedly rose in a third unit's reactor, meaning plant operators may need to deliberately release radioactive steam. That has only added to public anxiety over radiation that began leaking from the plant after a monstrous earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan on March 11 and left the plant unstable.

Light northwesterly winds and rains were forecast for the area around quake-stricken nuclear reactors on the northeast coast of Japan, the weather agency said Monday.

The weather is important in gauging the likelihood of light levels of radiation leaking from the plant reaching heavily populated areas, especially Tokyo to the south, or entering the food chain.

The safety of food and water was of particular concern. The government halted shipments of spinach from one area and raw milk from another near the nuclear plant after tests found iodine exceeded safety limits. But the contamination spread to spinach in three other prefectures and to more vegetables — canola and chrysanthemum greens. A village near the plant was ordered not to drink tap water due to elevated levels of radioactive iodine. Tokyo's tap water, where iodine turned up Friday, now has cesium. Rain and dust are also tainted.

In all cases, the government said the radiation levels were too small to pose an immediate health risk. But Taiwan seized a batch of fava beans from Japan found with faint — and legal — amounts of iodine and cesium.

So far the wind has blown mainly out into the Pacific.

The northwesterlies are expected to change to light southeasterlies toward Tuesday, according to the forecast.

"I'm worried, really worried," said Mayumi Mizutani, a 58-year-old Tokyo resident shopping for bottled water at a supermarket to give her visiting 2-year-old grandchild. "We're afraid because it's possible our grandchild could get cancer." Forecasts for rain, she said, were also a cause for concern.

All six of the nuclear complex's reactor units saw trouble after the disasters knocked out cooling systems. In a small advance, the plant's operator declared Units 5 and 6 — the least troublesome — under control after their nuclear fuel storage pools cooled to safe levels. Progress was made to reconnect two other units to the electric grid and in pumping seawater to cool another reactor and replenish it and a sixth reactor's storage pools.

But the buildup in pressure inside the vessel holding Unit 3's reactor presented some danger, forcing officials to consider venting. The tactic produced explosions of radioactive gas during the early days of the crisis.

"Even if certain things go smoothly, there would be twists and turns," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters. "At the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough."

Nuclear safety officials said one of the options could release a cloud dense with iodine as well as the radioactive elements krypton and xenon.

The plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., temporarily suspended the plans Sunday after it said the pressure inside the reactor stopped climbing, though staying at a high level.

"It has stabilized," Tokyo Electric manager Hikaru Kuroda told reporters.

Kuroda, who said temperatures inside the reactor reached 572 degrees Fahrenheit (300 degrees Celsius), said the option to release the highly radioactive gas inside is still under consideration if pressure rises.

Growing concerns about radiation add to the overwhelming chain of disasters Japan has struggled with since the 9.0-magnitude quake. It spawned a tsunami that ravaged the northeastern coast, killing 8,450 people, leaving more than 12,900 people missing, and displacing another 452,000, who are living in shelters.

Fuel, food and water remain scarce. The government in recent days acknowledged being caught ill-prepared by an enormous disaster that the prime minister has called the worst crisis since World War II.

Bodies are piling up in some of the devastated communities and badly decomposing even amid chilly rain and snow.

"The recent bodies — we can't show them to the families. The faces have been purple, which means they are starting to decompose," says Shuji Horaguchi, a disaster relief official setting up a center to process the dead in Natori, on the outskirts of the tsunami-flattened city of Sendai. "Some we're finding now have been in the water for a long time, they're not in good shape. Crabs and fish have eaten parts."

Before the disasters, safety drills were seldom if ever practiced and information about radiation exposure rarely given in Futuba, a small town in the shadow of the nuclear plant, said 29-year-old Tsugumi Hasegawa. She is living in a shelter with her 4-year-old daughter and feeling bewildered.

"I still have no idea what the numbers they are giving about radiation levels mean. It's all so confusing. And I wonder if they aren't playing down the dangers to keep us from panicking. I don't know who to trust," said Hasegawa, crammed with 1,400 people into a gymnasium on the outskirts of the city of Fukushima, 80 miles (50 miles) away from the plant.

Another nuclear safety official acknowledged that the government only belatedly realized the need to give potassium iodide to those living within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the nuclear complex.

The pills help reduce chances of thyroid cancer, one of the diseases that may develop from radiation exposure, by preventing the body from absorbing radioactive iodine. The official, Kazuma Yokota, said the explosion that occurred while venting the plant's Unit 3 reactor a week ago should have triggered the distribution. But the order came only three days later.

"We should have made this decision and announced it sooner," Yokota told reporters at the emergency command center in Fukushima. "It is true that we had not foreseen a disaster of these proportions. We had not practiced or trained for something this bad. We must admit that we were not fully prepared."

The higher reactor pressure may have been caused by a tactic meant to reduce temperatures — the pumping of seawater into the vessel, said Kuroda, the Tokyo Electric manager.

Using seawater to cool the reactors and storage pools was a desperate measure adopted early last week; Unit 4's pool was sprayed again Sunday and a system to inject water into Unit 2's reactor was repaired. Experts have said for days that seawater would inevitably corrode and ruin the reactors and other finely milled machine parts, effectively turning the plant into scrap.

Edano, the government spokesman, recognized the inevitable Sunday: "It is obviously clear that Fukushima Dai-ichi in no way will be in a condition to be restarted."

Quake risk at nuclear plants

Contamination of food and water compounds the government's difficulties, heightening the broader public's sense of dread about safety. Consumers in markets snapped up bottled water, shunned spinach from Ibaraki — the prefecture where the tainted spinach was found — and overall expressed concern about food safety.

Experts have said the amounts of iodine detected in milk, spinach and water pose no discernible risks to public health unless consumed in enormous quantities over a long time. Iodine breaks down quickly, after eight days, minimizing its harmfulness, unlike other radioactive isotopes such as cesium-137 or uranium-238, which remain in the environment for decades or longer.

High levels of iodine are linked to thyroid cancer, one of the least deadly cancers if treated. Cesium is a longer-lasting element that affects the whole body and raises cancer risk.

Rain forecast for the Fukushima area also could further localize the contamination, bringing the radiation to the ground closer to the plant.

Edano tried to reassure the public for a second day in a row. "If you eat it once, or twice, or even for several days, it's not just that it's not an immediate threat to health, it's that even in the future it is not a risk," Edano said. "Experts say there is no threat to human health."

No contamination has been reported in Japan's main food export — seafood — worth about $1.6 billion a year and less than 0.3 percent of its total exports.

Amid the anxiety, there were moments of joy on Sunday. An 80-year-old woman and her teenage grandson were rescued from their flattened two-story house after nine days, when the teen pulled himself to the roof and shouted to police for help.

Other survivors enjoyed smaller victories. Kiyoshi Hiratsuka and his family managed to pull his beloved Harley Davidson motorcycle from the rubble in their hometown of Onagawa.

"I almost gave up the search but it happened that I found it," the 37-year-old mechanic said. "I know that the motorbike would not work anymore, but I want to keep it as a memorial."

This story contains material from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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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