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Exodus from Japan as nuclear crisis intensifies

Foreign countries advise their citizens to evacuate Japan as emergency workers struggle to prevent a radiation catastrophe at an earthquake-stricken power plant.
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Foreign countries advised their citizens to evacuate Japan as emergency workers struggled Wednesday to prevent a nuclear meltdown and radiation catastrophe at an earthquake-stricken power plant.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chief said the situation at one damaged reactor seemed particularly troublesome because there was no water to stop the fuel rods from getting hotter and ultimately melting.

Workers withdrew briefly from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant Wednesday because of surging radiation but returned after emissions dropped to safer levels.

Fear and confusion reigned as officials said a second nuclear reactor at the complex, which houses a total of six reactors, may have ruptured and released radioactive steam.

The European Union's energy chief, Guenther Oettinger, told the European Parliament that the plant was "effectively out of control" after breakdowns in the facility's cooling system.

"In the coming hours there could be further catastrophic events, which could pose a threat to the lives of people on the island," Oettinger said.

"There is as yet no panic, but Tokyo with 35 million people, is the largest metropolis in the world," he said.

But the U.N. atomic watchdog chief took issue with Oettinger's comments.

"It is not the time to say things are out of control," Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told a news conference. "The operators are doing the maximum to restore the safety of the reactor."

Amano said he hoped to fly to Japan Thursday for a one-day trip to try to get more information from authorities there. He described the situation as "very serious" and earlier urged the Japanese government to provide better information to the IAEA.

Conditions at the plant appeared to be worsening.

Gregory B. Jacz, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday that the secondary containment system of reactor No. 4, which was shut down at the time of the quake, was apparently destroyed due to a hydrogen explosion in the unit.

"There is no water in the fuel pool, and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high," he testified.

He added that there is also the possibility of a crack in the spent fuel pool in reactor No. 3 "which could lead to a lost of water in that pool."

Japan's nuclear safety agency and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the complex, denied water is gone from the pool at Unit 4. Utility spokesman Hajime Motojuku said the "condition is stable" at that reactor.

White steam-like clouds drifted up from the reactor complex which, the government said, likely emitted a burst of radiation that led to the workers' temporary withdrawal Wednesday.

At one point, national broadcaster NHK showed military helicopters lifting off to survey radiation levels above the complex, preparing to dump water onto the most troubled reactors in a desperate effort to cool them down. The defense ministry later said it said it had decided against making an airborne drop because of the high radiation levels.

The plant's operator said ealier Thursday it has almost completed a new power line that could restore electricity to the complex and solve the crisis.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said the power line is almost complete and officials plan to try it "as soon as possible" but he could not say when.

The new line would revive electric-powered pumps, allowing the company to maintain a steady water supply to troubled reactors and spent fuel storage ponds, keeping them cool.

The nuclear crisis has triggered international alarm and partly overshadowed the human tragedy caused by Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami, a blast of black seawater that pulverized Japan's northeastern coastline. The quake was one of the strongest recorded in history.

The United States on Wednesday recommended its citizens living within 50 miles of the plant evacuate the area or take shelter indoors.

"We want to underscore that there are numerous factors in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, including weather, wind direction and speed, and the nature of the reactor problem that affect the risk of radioactive contamination within this 50-mile radius or the possibility of lower-level radioactive materials reaching greater distances," U.S. Ambassador John V. Roos said in a statement. "The U.S. Embassy will continue to update American citizens as the situation develops."

U.S. military relief crews are banned from going within 50 miles of the plant and are receiving anti-radiation pills before missions to areas of possible radiation exposure, the Pentagon said.

Britain, Australia and Germany advised their citizens in Japan on Wednesday to consider leaving Tokyo and earthquake-affected areas.

Germany's Foreign Ministry advised its citizens living near the nuclear plant or in the capital region to either leave the country or move to the Osaka area west of Tokyo.

Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke said an estimated 5,000 Germans were in Japan before the earthquake, but now only about 1,000 are believed to remain in and around the capital. Germany's embassy in Tokyo also has been "partly relocated" to the consulate general in Osaka, Peschke said.

France has urged its citizens with no reason to stay in Tokyo to return to France or head to southern Japan. The government has asked Air France to mobilize aircraft in Asia to assist with departures.

Serbia and Croatia advised their citizens to leave Japan, while Croatia said it was moving its embassy from Tokyo to Osaka because of the nuclear crisis.

More than 3,000 Chinese have already been evacuated from Japan's northeast to Niigata on Japan's western coast, according to Xinhua News Agency. On Tuesday, Beijing became the first government to organize a mass evacuation of its citizens from the quake-affected area.

Millions of people in Japan struggled for a fifth day with little food, water or heat, and already chilly temperatures turned to snow in many areas. Police say more than 452,000 people are staying in temporary shelters, often sleeping on the floor in school gymnasiums.

More than 4,300 people are officially listed as dead, but officials believe the toll will climb over 10,000 since several thousand more are listed as missing.

In an extremely rare address to the nation, Emperor Akihito expressed condolences and urged Japan not to give up.

"It is important that each of us shares the difficult days that lie ahead," said Akihito, 77, a figure deeply respected across the country. "I pray that we will all take care of each other and overcome this tragedy."

He also expressed his worries over the nuclear crisis, saying: "With the help of those involved I hope things will not get worse."

Since the quake and wave hit, authorities have been struggling to avert an environmental catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex, 140 miles north of Tokyo. The tsunami knocked out the backup diesel generators needed to keep nuclear fuel cool at the plant's six reactors, setting off the atomic crisis.

In the city of Fukushima, about 40 miles inland from the nuclear complex, hundreds of harried government workers, police officers and others struggled to stay on top of the situation in a makeshift command center.

Early Wednesday, another fire broke out at the crippled facility, which has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo.

Japan's government said radiation levels outside the plant's gates were stable but appealed to private companies to help deliver supplies to tens of thousands of people evacuated from around the complex.

"People would not be in immediate danger if they went outside with these levels. I want people to understand this," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a televised news conference, referring to people living outside an 18-mile exclusion zone. Some 140,000 people inside the zone have been told to stay indoors.

Workers cleared debris to build a road so fire trucks could reach reactor No. 4. Flames were no longer visible at the building housing that reactor.

High radiation levels prevented a helicopter from dropping water into the No. 3 reactor to try to cool its fuel rods after an earlier explosion damaged the unit's roof and cooling system.

The plant operator described No. 3 — the only reactor at that uses plutonium in its fuel mix — as the "priority." Plutonium, once absorbed in the bloodstream, can linger for years in bone marrow or liver and lead to cancer.

The reactor unit may have ruptured, although officials said the damage was unlikely to be severe.

The situation at No. 4 reactor, where the fire broke out, was "not so good," the plant operator TEPCO added, while water was being poured into reactors No. 5 and 6, indicating the entire six-reactor facility was now at risk of overheating.

"Getting water into the pools of the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors is a high priority," Hidehiko Nishiyama, a senior official at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Administration, told a news conference, adding the pool for spent fuel rods at No. 3 was heating up while No. 4 remained a concern.

"It could become a serious problem in a few days," he said.

In the worst case, any radioactive cloud from the damaged nuclear plant is likely to be limited to the densely populated nation — unlike the wider fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the world's worst nuclear accident.

At the Fukushima plant, the explosive potential within the six reactors is easing with time.

"In the worst case, a radioactive cloud would not go that far up in the atmosphere," said Jan Beranek, head of environmental group Greenpeace's International Nuclear Campaign.

"That is good news for the world, but bad news for Japan."

Heavy snow blanketed Japan's devastated northeast on Wednesday, hindering rescue workers and adding to the woes of the few, mainly elderly, residents who remained in the area worst hit by last week's massive earthquake and tsunami.

In some parts of Sendai city, firefighters and relief teams sifted through mounds of rubble, hoping to find any sign of life in water-logged wastelands where homes and factories once stood.

But, as they did in most other towns, rescuers just pulled out body after body, which they wrapped in brightly colored blankets and lined up neatly against the grey, grim landscape.

"The strong smell of bodies and the dirty seawater make search extremely difficult," said Yin Guanghui, a member of a Chinese rescue team working in the battered town of Ofunato.

"Powerful waves in the tsunami would repeatedly hit houses in the area. Anyone trapped under the debris would be drown in no time, without any chance to survive."