Image: Cement pump truck loaded onto cargo plane
Marijan Murat  /  EPA
A truck carrying a cement pump that can extend nearly 200 feet is loaded onto an Antonov 124 plane in Stuttgart, Germany, on Thursday. The pump is being flown to Japan to help at stricken the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/31/2011 10:37:07 PM ET 2011-04-01T02:37:07

Some of the world's largest cement pumps were en route to Japan's stricken nuclear plant on Thursday, initially to help douse areas with water but eventually for cement work — including the possibility of entombing the site as was done in Chernobyl.

Operated via remote control, one of the truck-mounted pumps was already at the Fukushima Dai-ichi site and being used to spray water. Four more will be flown in from Germany and the United States, according to the German-manufacturer Putzmeister. The biggest of the five has an arm that extends well over 200 feet.

"Initially, they will probably pump water," Putzmeister stated. "Later they will be used for any necessary concreting work."

A construction company in Augusta, Ga., was among those redirecting the pumps to Japan. Its owner said he believes building a concrete sarcophagus will follow.

"Our understanding is they are preparing to go to next phase and it will require a lot of concrete," Jerry Ashmore told the Augusta Chronicle.

He did not expect the pump to return. "It will be too hot to come back," Ashmore said.

A cargo plane is expected to fly the truck and pump from Atlanta next week at a cost of $1.4 million.

Putzmeister concrete pumps were among those used to seal in the Chernobyl reactor after it exploded in Ukraine in 1986, and sightings of the first truck at the Dai-ichi complex last week led to media speculation that Japan was planning to do the same in Fukushima.

Meanwhile, the Mainichi newspaper reported Friday that Japan's government plans to take control of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the stricken nuclear plant, by injecting public funds.

But the government is unlikely to take more than a 50 percent stake in the company, an unnamed government official was quoted by the daily as saying.

"If the stake goes over 50 percent, it will be nationalized. But that's not what we are considering," the official was quoted as saying.

Japanese trade minister Banri Kaieda said the government has yet to debate the possibility of nationalizing or taking control of TEPCO, Kyodo news agency reported.

The government may set up a team to discuss TEPCO-related compensation issues, Kyodo quoted Kaieda, whose ministry oversees nuclear safety, as saying the firm faces a huge potential compensation bill.

TEPCO could face compensation claims topping $130 billion if Japan's worst nuclear crisis dragged on, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch estimated this week, further fueling expectations Japan's government will step in to save Asia's largest utility.

Earlier Thursday, TEPCO said that short-lived radioactive contaminants 10,000 times above health standards were found in groundwater below the power plant.

Contaminated water has been pooling at the complex since it was damaged by the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Some was already known to have leaked into the sea and soil, and now groundwater is part of that mix.

The high levels of iodine-131 were measured in groundwater 45 feet beneath the reactor at Unit 1, Tokyo Electric Power spokesman Naoyuki Matsumo told reporters.

Matsumo emphasized that the local drinking water supply was not affected, which is the main way people might be harmed by iodine-131, which decays quickly, with half disappearing in eight days.

Contamination from the plant has also been seeping into the sea, though so far poses no threat to human health. Levels of radioactive iodine rose again Thursday in seawater some 360 yards from the shore to 4,385 times the legal limit.

Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said Thursday that consistently high levels found in seawater outside the plant may mean radiation is leaking out continuously.

"That is a possibility," Agency Deputy Director-General Hidehiko Nishiyama told a news conference when asked if there was continuous contamination of the sea.

He added that regulators and engineers did not know where the leaks may be.

On Wednesday, nuclear safety officials said seawater 300 yards outside the plant contained 3,355 times the legal limit of radioactivity.

Japanese officials are increasingly seeking outside help, including experts in eliminating contaminated water from French nuclear giant Areva. Experts and a robot from the U.S. have also arrived in Japan.

"The amount of water is enormous, and we need any wisdom available," nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said.

Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon said she appreciated the enormity of the problem. Areva, a large supplier of nuclear fuel, sent staff with expertise in boiling water reactors and disposing of contaminated water and fuel rods.

"There is no precedent (for this kind of problem), and it's very complex," she said at a news conference in Tokyo.

Story: View images of quake, tsunami by date, location

The U.S. has also sent a remote-controlled robot, and officials from TEPCO said they expect to use it within a few days for evaluating areas with high radiation.

In other developments:

  • Efforts to recover the bodies of tsunami and quake victims from the evacuation zone have been slowed by debris, but also by fears of radiation. Police dressed in full radiation suits retrieved 19 corpses from the rubble Wednesday, a police official said. Each officer wears a radiation detector and must leave the area whenever an alarm goes off — a frequent occurrence that has often dragged the operation to a halt, the official said. "We want to recover bodies quickly, but also must ensure the safety of police officers against nuclear radiation," he said. Local media have estimated hundreds of bodies remain.
  • Hundreds of evacuees from the area around the stricken nuclear plant are being turned away by hospitals and shelters because of fear they may be carrying radiation, a British newspaper reported. The Daily Telegraph said some officials were demanding that evacuees provide certificates proving they have not been exposed to contamination.
  • French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Japan Thursday, the first leader to visit since the devastating earthquake and tsunami sparked the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.
  • Japan's health ministry ordered more tests after a cow slaughtered for beef was found to have radioactive contamination slightly higher than the legal limit. Officials stressed that the meat was not ever put on the market. Contamination has already been found in vegetables and raw milk near the plant, which has been leaking radiation since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The cesium was found in a cow slaughtered March 15 more than 40 miles from the plant. The cow had a total cesium level of 510 becquerels per kilogram. The limit is 500. A person could eat beef with that level of contamination for decades without getting sick.

As officials seek to bring an end to the nuclear crisis, hundreds of thousands in the northeast are still trying to put their lives back together following the earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 11,000 people and left over 16,000 missing.

The government said damage is expected to cost $310 billion, making it the most costly natural disaster on record.

Story: NBC's Robert Bazell answers your questions onJapan's nuclear crisis

In the small coastal city of Miyako, many people still have no idea what happened to their relatives. Residents watched intently Thursday as a firefighter in a boat and two tractors cleared the bay of rubble, part of cleanup efforts under way along hundreds of miles of Japan's northeastern seaboard.

Giant tractors and dump trucks cleared roads and sorted debris into giant piles. Huge barges with onboard cranes docked offshore and scooped up wreckage in the shallow bays.

"I lost three grandchildren," says Isamu Aneishi, 69, who sat on a log for hours and watched the men search the bay.

Video: EPA admits to glitches in radiation monitors (on this page)

A vacant lot outside Miyako has been turned into a car graveyard, with hundreds of wrecked vehicles from across the region deposited in neat rows. Some looked ready to be driven away, while others were little more than mangled heaps of metal.

Many were marked with red spray paint, indicating bodies had been found inside, and some still had keys in the ignition. Residents walked up and down the rows looking for their cars.

"This is my third time coming here," said Yasuhiro Ichihashi, 42, who watched his car get swept out of the parking lot at his factory from high ground. "They keep adding more cars every day, so I come back to check."

The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this story.

Video: More trouble for Japanese nuclear plant

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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