Video: Nuclear disaster 'on verge of stabilizing'

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    >>> non-stop coverage of this ongoing disaster in japan, which again is playing out along two basic prongs, both of them awful. a towering humanitarian disaster , and a continuing nuclear disaster now spreading to the area of food safety . we have both covered tonight. we have two reports, beginning with chief science correspondent, robert bazell , in tokyo. bob.

    >> reporter: brian, in another setback in the efforts to contain the crippled reactors, engineers have discovered that some of the pumps are damaged beyond repair. they won't be able to restart them any time soon. smoke coming first from reactor 3 and later number 2 forced some workers to evacuate. despite those setbacks, officials with the u.s. nuclear regulatory commission emphasize sea water is not reaching all of the troubled reactors and attempts to restore power continue.

    >> i would say optimistically things appear to be on the verge of stabilizing.

    >> reporter: however, in the food markets across japan, mounting fears the situation is not stabilizing fast enough. traces of radiation led government officials to halt shipments of milk from fukushima prefecture and leafy vegetables from fukushima and four other regions, some as far as 160 miles from the plant. officials say the radiation levels are not currently high enough to pose a serious health threat. still, japanese anti-nuclear activists warn of potential dangers.

    >> when there is contamination in the soil, that gets into the food chain and it's there for a long time.

    >> reporter: but the longer those reactors continue to leak radiation, the more complicated it is to contain the effects. robert bazell , nbc news, tokyo.

msnbc.com news services
updated 3/22/2011 1:01:07 AM ET 2011-03-22T05:01:07

Officials are racing to restore electricity to Japan's leaking nuclear plant, but getting the power flowing will hardly be the end of their battle: With its mangled machinery and partly melted reactor cores, bringing the complex under control is a monstrous job.

Restoring the power to all six units at the tsunami-damaged complex is key, because it will, in theory, drive the maze of motors, valves and switches that help deliver cooling water to the overheated reactor cores and spent fuel pools that are leaking radiation.

Ideally, officials believe it should only take a day to get the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear under control once the cooling systems are up and running. But it could take days or weeks to get those systems working.

"We have experienced a very huge disaster that has caused very large damage at a nuclear power generation plant on a scale that we had not expected," Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told reporters late Monday.

The nuclear plant's cooling systems were wrecked by the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11. Since then, conditions at the plant have been volatile; plumes of smoke rose from two reactor units Monday, prompting workers to evacuate units 1-4.

Slideshow: Devastation in Japan after quake (on this page)

Tokyo Electric Power Co said on Tuesday it resumed work on restoring power to the reactors after checking that the smoke had turned to steam.

"Steam was coming out from before," a TEPCO spokesman said. "We judged it was safe to continue work."

The high-stakes drama at the battered complex is playing out while the Asian nation grapples with the aftermath of the quake and tsunami that left at least 21,000 people dead or missing.

Key systems damaged
Technicians working inside an evacuation zone around the stricken plant on Japan's northeast Pacific coast managed to attach power cables to all six reactors and started a water pump at one of them to cool overheating nuclear fuel rods.

"We see a light for getting out of the crisis," an official quoted Prime Minister Naoto Kan as saying, allowing himself some rare optimism in Japan's toughest moment since World War II.

But in another setback, the plant's operator said Monday it had just discovered that some of the cooling system's key pumps at the complex's troubled Unit 2 are no longer functional — meaning replacements have to be brought in. TEPCO said it placed emergency orders for new pumps, but it was unclear how long it would take for them to arrive.

If officials can get the power turned on, get the replacement pumps working and get enough seawater into the reactors and spent fuel pools, it would only take a day to bring the temperatures back to a safe, cooling stage, said Ryohei Shiomi, an official with the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

And if not?

"There is nothing else we can do but keep doing what we've been doing," Shiomi said.

In other words, officials would continue dousing the plant in seawater — and hope for the best.

An official of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in Washington that Units 1, 2 and 3 have all seen damage to their reactor cores, but that containment is intact. The assessment dispels some concerns about Unit 2, where an explosion damaged a pressure-reducing chamber around the bottom of the reactor core.

"I would say optimistically that things appear to be on the verge of stabilizing," said Bill Borchardt, the commission's executive director for operations.

Radiation fears
The Japanese government said there was no need to extend the 20 km (12 mile) evacuation zone around the plant. "At the moment, there is no need to expand the evacuation area," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a briefing.

Latest available readings from an area 10 km (6 miles) outside the evacuation zone show a level of 110 microsieverts per hour in the air, well below a level that would cause health risks but much higher than normal background levels.

It is unclear what background levels would have been this far away from the plant before the tsunami struck, but a reading of 110 microsieverts is roughly 3,000 times Tokyo's normal pre-disaster background level.

Yet away from the plant, evidence of small amounts of radiation in vegetables, water and milk spread jitters among Japanese and abroad despite officials' assurances levels were not dangerous.

TEPCO said radiation had been found in the waters of the Pacific nearby, perhaps not surprising given crews have been dousing the reactors with seawater ever since the accident.

Radioactive iodine in the sea samples was 126.7 times the allowed limit, while cesium was 24.8 times over, Kyodo news agency said. That still posed no immediate danger, TEPCO said.

"It would have to be drunk for a whole year in order to accumulate to one millisievert," a TEPCO official said, referring to the standard radiation measurement unit. People are generally exposed to about 1 to 10 millisieverts each year from background radiation caused by substances in the air and soil.

Video: Nuclear disaster 'on verge of stabilizing' (on this page)

Japan has urged some residents near the plant to stop drinking tap water after high levels of radioactive iodine were detected. It has also stopped shipments of milk, spinach and another local vegetable called kakina from the area.

"Radiation levels exceeding provisional standards have been found (in some products)," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. "What I want the people to understand is that their levels are not high enough to affect humans. Eating these products just a couple of times would not affect people's health."

Experts say readings are much lower than around Chernobyl after the 1986 accident in Ukraine. Some warned against panic.

Story: Restaurant allows diners to check food for radiation

"You would have to eat or drink an awful lot to get any level of radiation that would be harmful," said Laurence Williams, professor of nuclear safety at the John Tyndall Institute in Britain.

"We live in a radioactive world — we get radiation from the earth, from the food we eat. It's an emotive subject and the nuclear industry and governments have got to do a lot more to educate people."

Image: Damage at Fukushima nuclear power plant
TEPCO / HANDOUT  /  EPA
Smoke rises Monday from the site housing Unit 3 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

There were no major reports of contaminated food in Tokyo, a city of about 13 million where many are staying indoors or wearing face masks. Some expatriates and locals left last week right after the accident.

Japan is a net importer of food, but has substantial exports — mainly fruit, vegetables, dairy products and seafood — with its biggest markets in Hong Kong, China and the United States.

Video: Maintaining dignity amid devastation (on this page)

Jitters abroad
China said it is monitoring food imports from Japan but also took a swipe against panic by jailing a man for 10 days for spreading rumors about contamination of its waters.

State media said the computer company worker, who had urged people to avoid sea products for a year, was also fined 500 yuan ($76.13) and had confessed to "deep awareness of his mistake."

South Korea is expanding inspection to processed and dried agricultural Japanese food, from just fresh produce.

Quake risk at nuclear plants

And in Taiwan, a top Japanese restaurant is offering diners a radiation gauge in case they are nervous about the food.

A senior defense official confirmed to NBC News that the U.S. military is distributing potassium iodide tablets to all sailors and their families at Yokosuka Naval Base and Atsugi Naval Air Base in Japan.

Like the U.S. government officials who will get the tablets in much of Honshu, the sailors and their families have not been advised to take the tablets yet — and are warned not to take them unless instructed.

The U.S. is also moving the aircraft carrier USS George Washington away from Japan as a precaution because of concerns that long-term exposure to radiation will damage the ship.

U.S. military families continue to depart Japan on the voluntary evacuation order. There were seven flights scheduled to depart Japan on Tuesday, carrying approximately 1,800 family members to either Seattle or Denver.

In a symbolic boost for Japan, billionaire investor Warren Buffett said the earthquake and tsunami were an "enormous blow" but in fact presented a "buying opportunity." for Japanese stocks.

An official of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in Washington that Units 1, 2 and 3 have all seen damage to their reactor cores, but that containment is intact. The assessment dispels some concerns about Unit 2, where an explosion damaged a pressure-reducing chamber around the bottom of the reactor core.

"I would say optimistically that things appear to be on the verge of stabilizing," said Bill Borchardt, the commission's executive director for operations.

What caused the smoke to billow first from Unit 3 and then from Unit 2 on Monday was under investigation, nuclear safety agency officials said. In the days since the earthquake and tsunami, both units have overheated and seen explosions outside their reactor cores.

Workers were evacuated from the area to buildings nearby, though radiation levels remained steady, the officials said. It was a setback in efforts to rewire the plant, where officials had hoped to finish connecting all six reactor units to the grid on Tuesday.

Problems set off by the disasters have ranged far beyond the shattered northeast coast and the wrecked nuclear plant, handing the government what it has called Japan's worst crisis since World War II. Rebuilding may cost as much as $235 billion.

The World Bank said in a report Monday that Japan may need five years to rebuild from the disasters, which caused up to $235 billion in damage, saying the cost to private insurers will be up to $33 billion and that the government will spend $12 billion on reconstruction in the current national budget and much more later.

The Associated Press and Reuters 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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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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