Japan choppers, trucks douse stricken atomic plant
Tokyo (AFP) March 18, 2011
The Japanese military Thursday used trucks and helicopters to dump tonnes of water onto the quake-hit Fukushima nuclear plant in efforts to douse fuel rods and prevent a disastrous radiation release.
Four twin-rotor CH-47 Chinooks ran the first mission to empty large buckets that hold more than seven tonnes of water each onto the facility damaged by last Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami.
The operation aims to keep the fuel rods inside reactors and containment pools submerged under water, to stop them from degrading when they are exposed to air and emitting dangerous radioactive material.
The helicopter mission started in the morning under a clear sky after a similar effort the previous day was called off shortly before darkness fell by officials citing strong radiation and high winds.
Late in the day, two special Self-Defence Forces (SDF) fire trucks joined the crucial emergency effort at the plant, some 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of the Japanese capital.
A police water cannon was unable to operate, however, due to strong radiation at the facility.
Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said that more military vehicles would be deployed to help with efforts to cool the reactors, while pumps supplied by the US armed forces were also being transferred.
Paving the way for a more direct role by the US military, the Pentagon said it had sent a team of experts to evaluate what assistance US forces could provide to the plant.
President Barack Obama said he did not expect harmful radiation to reach US territory. He also announced a "comprehensive review" of US nuclear safety.
The Japanese government's nuclear safety agency has said the top priority should be pouring water into the fuel-rod pools at reactors three and four, which may be boiling and are not fully covered by roofs that would reduce radiation leaks.
An official at plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said Thursday the pool at the number-four reactor "seemed to have water" on Wednesday, based on aerial observations carried out by the military helicopters.
Another TEPCO spokesman said: "We have not confirmed how much water was left inside but we have not had information that spent fuel rods are exposed."
Early Friday, a TEPCO spokesman told a news conference that the operation was believed to have had some effect.
"When we poured water, we monitored steam rising from the facility. By pouring water, we believe the water turned down the heat. We believe that there was a certain effect," the spokesman said.
He added that TEPCO and the team planned to keep pouring in water on Friday.
Workers would also continue with the crucial task of trying to restore power lines, he said, in a bid to reactivate the plant's crippled cooling systems, which were knocked out in the dual calamity that hit Japan.
Chief government spokesman Yukio Edano said it would take some time to find out whether the cooling operation had led to any significant improvement.
"Based on what experts have told us, it's important to have a certain level of water (in the pools) before we can start to see any positive effect," Edano told reporters.
"We are closely monitoring the data," he said.
The nuclear safety agency said early Friday that TEPCO had managed to get a line from a regional power firm into the plant site which would allow it to restore the cooling system.
"But the line has yet to reach the reactors' power system and it will take 10 or 15 hours to connect the line to it," an agency spokesman said.
A TEPCO spokesman earlier told AFP: "If the restoration work is completed, we will be able to activate various electric pumps and pour water into reactors and pools for spent nuclear fuel."
The 9.0-magnitude quake, the biggest on record to strike Japan, knocked down electricity pylons which Tohoku had used to supply power to the TEPCO plant.
Some 70 workers have been using pumps to pour seawater to cool reactors at the plant, according to media reports, using electricity from borrowed mobile generators.
In Fukushima prefecture, where a zone within 20 kilometres of the plant has already been evacuated, about 10,000 people were to be screened at 26 locations for radiation exposure, Kyodo News reported, citing local officials.
So far, radioactivity has been detected on six people, whose faces and hands were wiped clean, the report said.
earlier related report
"We hope the Japanese side will release information, as well as its evaluation and prediction of the situation, to the public in a timely and precise manner," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.
Jiang had been asked for comment on the deepening peril in Japan, where last Friday's 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami have left a nuclear power plant on its east coast leaking radiation and in danger of meltdown.
Jiang did not specifically criticise Japan's level of openness.
China -- whose relations with Japan are often prickly -- was "very sympathetic and sincerely hope that the Japanese people will overcome the difficulties", Jiang said, adding China had donated 20,000 tonnes of fuel and $4.5 million in other aid to its Asian neighbour.
Her comments came six months after a boat collision in disputed waters in the East China Sea triggered the worst diplomatic crisis between the two countries in years.
China, the United States and France have taken steps to remove their citizens from Japan -- despite's Tokyo's assurances that the situation did not pose a major health threat outside an evacuation zone near the plant.
China has moved thousands of its citizens in Japan to Tokyo for evacuation from the country, and two Chinese airlines have added flights to accommodate extra demand.
China has also stepped up radiation monitoring of passengers and goods from neighbouring Japan, ordered safety inspections of its own nuclear facilities and temporarily suspended approval for new nuclear projects.
On Thursday, Beijing was forced to issue a public call for calm at home after shoppers flooded supermarkets to buy salt in the belief that the iodine it contains can ward off the effects of radioactivity.
The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country's top economic planner, issued a notice assuring the public that China had ample salt stocks.
It urged shoppers to "consume rationally, buy reasonably, and don't believe or spread rumours".
The government has repeatedly said that China itself faces no imminent threat of radiation contamination from the Fukushima nuclear plant, 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) east of the nearest part of northeastern China.
Iodine, which is found in most salt in China as part of a national policy to prevent iodine deficiency disorders, helps to protect a person's thyroid and glandular system from radiation damage if exposed.
However, large amounts of normal table salt would need to be ingested to have any impact.
"Salt sold out early this morning," an employee at a branch of French supermarket chain Carrefour in Shanghai told AFP, declining to give her name.
She added that many customers reported salt prices at other shops in the city had risen as much as six-fold.
The rush for salt was so acute that dozens of individual and corporate merchants on China's largest retail website, Taobao, were offering free packs if customers bought their goods.
The NDRC ordered authorities to immediately check market prices and prevent hoarding, price-gouging, and the spreading of rumours "to safeguard market supply and price stability of daily necessities and maintain market order".
The panic buying sent the share prices of salt producers soaring on Chinese stock markets Thursday.
Border inspection authorities in Shanghai -- the world's biggest container port -- said Wednesday they were checking all incoming travellers, luggage and imports of food and other goods from Japan entering the city's airport or port.
Air passengers arriving in Beijing were being monitored for radiation, but officials said this was routine even before Japan's disasters.
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Tokyo (AFP) March 17, 2011
Japanese military helicopters dumped tonnes of water Thursday onto the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant northeast of Tokyo in a bid to douse fuel rods and prevent a disastrous radiation release. Four twin-rotor CH-47 Chinooks of the Self-Defence Forces ran the first mission to empty large buckets that hold more than seven tonnes of water each onto the facility damaged by Friday's massi ... read more
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