Meltdown feared as water runs out at Japanese nuclear plant

March 16, 2011

By Associated Press & City Room

(IFRC/Getty)
Rescue workers search for survivors in Otsuchi, Japan

The chief of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says all the water is gone from one of the spent fuel pools at Japan's most troubled nuclear plant. This means there's nothing to stop the fuel rods from getting hotter and ultimately melting down. The outer shell of the rods could also ignite with enough force to propel the radioactive fuel inside over a wide area.

Gregory Jaczko did not say Wednesday how the information was obtained, but the NRC and U.S. Department of Energy both have experts on site at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex of six reactors. He says officials believe radiation levels are extremely high, and that could affect workers' ability to stop temperatures from escalating.

New power line could solve the crisis

Meanwhile, the operator of Japan's tsunami-crippled nuclear plant says it has almost completed a new power line that could restore electricity to the complex and solve the crisis that has threatened a meltdown. Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said early Thursday the power line to Fukushima Dai-ichi is almost complete. 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 earthquake and tsunami that pulverized Japan's northeastern coastline.

U.S. parts with Japan on safety zone recommendations

The White House is now recommending that U.S. citizens stay 50 miles away from a stricken nuclear plant, not the 20-mile radius recommended by the Japanese. The order comes after President Barack Obama met Wednesday with top advisers and the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

As late as Tuesday, the U.S. had not issued its own recommendations, advising citizens instead to follow the recommendations of the Japanese. White House spokesman Jay Carney says the move does not signal a lack of confidence in Japan. He says the NRC is using its own data and making its recommendation on how it would handle the incident if it happened in the U.S.

Carney says the White House consulted with the Japanese government before making the recommendation.

U.S. EPA adds more radiation meters along the West Coast

Federal environmental regulators say they are adding more radiation monitors in the western United States and Pacific territories as concerns rise over exposure from damaged nuclear plants in Japan. The Environmental Protection Agency already monitors radiation throughout the area as part of its RadNet system, which measures levels in air, drinking water, milk and rain.

But the additional monitors are in response to the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, where emergency workers are attempting to cool overheated reactors damaged by last week's magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami.  The EPA says data from the monitors are available on its website for coastal states, Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa.

Officials with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission say they do not expect harmful radiation levels to reach the U.S. from Japan.

Worsening nuclear crisis rattles financial markets

Fears that a nuclear reactor in Japan may be in the midst of a partial meltdown shook U.S. financial markets on Wednesday.

Stock indexes lost 2 percent and gave up nearly all of their gains for the year.  All 10 company groups that make up the Standard & Poor's 500 index fell.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 242 points, or 2 percent, to 11,613. It was the biggest drop for the index since August 11.