Workers In Japan Seeing Success In Cooling Reactors

March 20, 2011

NPR Staff and Wires

Paula Bronstein
People wait in line for a supermarket to open as limited food continues to cause problems for people in the earthquake effected areas March 20, 2011 in Ichinoseki, Japan.

After a week of disasters and setbacks, power plant workers and military personnel at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant made some progress today in cooling over-heated fuel rods.

On Friday, U.S. officials warned those rods posed the most urgent danger of radiation leakage into the environment because the water that is supposed to cover them – keeping them cool and shielding their radiation – had largely drained away.

Unlike the nuclear fuel inside the plant's reactors, the rods in the storage pools are not walled off by containment vessels, and the buildings they're in have been heavily damaged by explosions and fires. That allows radioactive gases to escape directly into the environment.

But NPR's Christopher Joyce in Tokyo reports that seawater sprayed from water cannons has succeeded in lowering temperatures in the storage pools.

Workers were also able to back away from a planned release of radioactive gases at the facility's troubled No. 3 reactor because pressure within the reactor stabilized after mounting ominously earlier.

They also brought electrical power to the No. 2 reactor from what was essentially a mile-long extension cord, and planned to extend the power to other reactors.

However, it isn't yet clear whether the power will be able to reactivate pumps and other equipment needed to cool the reactors and adjacent storage pools for radioactive fuel rods. Much of that equipment may have been damaged by the 20-foot tsunami that inundated the power plant on March 11.

Hundreds more workers have been brought in to the afflicted plant, bringing the total to 500. For most of the past week, 170 workers have rotated in and out of highly radioactive parts of the plant and a lead-lined bunker, to keep their radiation exposure below levels that would sicken or even kill them.

Two Survivors Found 9 Days After Quake

An 80-year-old woman and her teenage grandson were rescued Sunday in northeastern Japan when the youth was able to pull himself out of their flattened two-story house nine days after the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Jin Abe, 16, was seen calling out for help from the roof of the collapsed home in the hard-hit city of Ishinomaki, according to the Miyagi Prefectural Police. Like other homes in northeastern Japan, they had lost electricity and telephone service in the March 11 earthquake.

He led them inside to his 80-year-old grandmother, Sumi Abe. Both were conscious but weak, and had survived on the food they had in their refrigerator, said Shizuo Kawamura of the Ishinomaki police department.

The woman could not get out of the house because she has trouble walking, and the teenager, who was suffering from a low body temperature, had been unable until Sunday to pull himself from the wreckage

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 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 bodies in Natori, on the outskirts 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, according to 29-year-old Tsugumi Hasegawa. In the aftermath, 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 Fukushima city, 80 miles away from the plant.

Government Late With Potassium Iodide

Another nuclear safety official acknowledged Sunday that the government only belatedly realized the need to give potassium iodide to those living within 12 miles 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 last Sunday 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 the city of 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."

Japanese Worry About Food Safety

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 period of 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.

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

The governor of Fukushima, where milk contaminated with iodine was found at one farm Friday, urged dairy farmers across the prefecture to halt all sales — just short of a ban in consensus-driven, polite Japan.

Edano, the government spokesman, tried to reassure the public for a second day running Sunday. "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. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.