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UPDATED: Japan quake: power restored to 3 stricken reactors

UPDATED Monday 6pm: Reuters says engineers have restored electricity to three reactors at a crippled Japanese nuclear power plant and hope to test water pumps at the quake-damaged facility soon, the first clear signs of progress in tackling t

NBR staff
Fri, 11 Mar 2011

UPDATED Monday 6pm: Reuters says  engineershave  restored electricity to three reactors at a crippled Japanese nuclear power plant and hope to test water pumps at the quake-damaged facility soon, the first clear signs of progress in tackling the world's worst atomic crisis in 25 years.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, asked by CNN whether the worst of Japan's 10-day nuclear crisis was over, said: "Well, we believe so, but I don't want to make a blanket statement."

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko added that radiation levels at the plant appeared to be falling.

UPDATED Monday 3.50pm: Engineers are working overtime to try and reconnect power cables to damaged Japanese nuclear reactors, as public fears grow about radiation-contaminated food and water.

About 300 engineers are working inside the evacuation zone at the Fukushima plant.

They are trying to connect electricity cables in order to re-start pumps and cool the reactors down.

So far they have been using seawater to try and cool down exposed fuel rods.

International media report progress has been made in the last 24 hours, with power cables re-established at the number one, two, five and six reactors.

If they are unsuccessful in re-starting the pumps more drastic action may need to be taken, including possibly burying the plant in sand and concrete.

Japan has suffered damage estimated at more than NZ$300 billion from the quake and subsequent tsunami.

More than 21,000 people are either dead or missing and the death toll continues to rise.

UPDATED Monday: Two survivors have been pulled from the rubble of a demolished house nine days after a magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami hit Japan.

Sixteen-year-old Jin Abe and his 80-year-old grandmother Sumi were stranded at the house in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture yesterday.

Four police officers found the boy on the roof of the demolished house calling for help, Kyodo News reported.

He was taken to hospital suffering from hypothermia, Kyodo reported.

News of the rescue came as officials continued their effort to prevent catastrophe at the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The government said two units at the plant had been cooled but pressure had unexpectedly risen in a third reactor,

The pressure build-up may force the plant’s operators to release radioactive steam.

Fears are already growing about radiation contaminating food and water supplies.

The government halted shipments of spinach and raw milk from areas near the nuclear plant after tests found iodine exceeded safety limits.

Contamination has also been found in spinach, canola and chrysanthemum greens, while iodine and cesium have been detected in Tokyo’s tap water.

UPDATED Sunday: International media reports suggest Japan is making some progress to prevent total disaster at its damaged nuclear power plant, despite confirmation of minor radiation leaks.

Work at the Fukushima complex, the most critical reactor -- No. 3 which has highly toxic plutonium -- stabilised after fire trucks doused it for hours with hundreds of metric tons of water, according to Reuters news agency.

It reported that work was also advancing on bringing power back to water pumps used to cool overheating nuclear fuel.

"We are making progress ... (but) we shouldn't be too optimistic," said Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy-general at Japan's Nuclear Safety Agency.

Technicians attached a power cable to the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors, hoping to restore electricity later in the day prior to an attempt to switch the pumps on, Reuters said. They aim to reach No. 3 and 4 soon after that.

If successful, that could be a turning point in a crisis classed as bad as America's 1979 Three Mile Island accident. If not, drastic measures may be required such as burying the plant in sand and concrete as happened at Chernobyl after the world's worst nuclear reactor disaster in 1986.

Several hundred engineers have been battling inside a radiation danger zone to save the six-reactor Fukushima plant since it was hit by an earthquake and tsunami that also killed 7,653 people and left 11,746 more missing in northeast Japan.

The unprecedented multiple crisis will cost the world's third largest economy nearly $200 billion and require Japan's biggest reconstruction push since post-World War II.

It has also set back nuclear power plans the world over.

UPDATED Saturday: The Japanese government's Nuclear Safetly Agency has raised the threat level around the crippled Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station from a 4 to 5 on on the International Nuclear and Radiological Events Scale (INES), which runs to 7.

The US Three Mile Island meltdown was classified by the US government as a five on the same scale. 

There are conflicing reports of radiation in the immediate ara around Fukushima-Daiichi, but Western experts quoted by the New York Times said contamination levels already exceeded those of the Three Mile incident.

The INES scale runs from zero (no incident) to seven, a "major accident."

Only Chernobyl has rated a seven.

Level five is defined as an "accident with wider consequences."

The reassessment comes two days after the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission first warned that the situation at Fukushima-Daiichi could be worse than the Japanese government had indicated.

Despite the increased threat level, the Japanese government kept the exclusion zone around the plant at 20km.

Most other countries are advising their citizens to stay at least 80km from the plant; New Zealanders have been told to consider leaving northern Japan.

Boron to counter meltdown threat
In what was seen as a further sign of spreading alarm that uranium in the Fukushima-Daiichi plant could begin to melt, Japan planned to import about 136 tonnes of boron from to mix with water to be sprayed onto damaged reactors. Reports of the plan came from France and Korea, where the boron will be sourced.

Boron absorbs neutrons during a nuclear reaction and can be used in an effort to stop a meltdown if the zirconium cladding on uranium fuel rods is compromised. 

UPDATED Friday 6.30pm: Japanese authorities made frantic efforts to reattach a power cable to the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant today, which would enable water pumps be restarted. However, little or no progress has been made over today.

In a glimmer of better news, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission told reporters at a White House briefing that its first data collection flghts over the area had found that the worst radioactive contamination had not spread beyond the 20km exclusion zone.

Japan's Nuclear Safety Agency said tht radiation at Fukushima1 west gate (1.1kms from reactor) fluctuating between 271uSv/h and 309uSV/h.  

The radiation levels are such that works on the front-line of efforts to cool the plant by helicopter water drops - the so-called The Fukushima 50 - are only being exposed in 90-second bursts.

UPDATED Friday 8.30am: The operators of a crippled Japanese nuclear power plant have used military helicopters to dump water on overheating reactors as it tries to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.

Engineers were also working to connect a power line off the main grid to power water pumps needed to cool reactors and spent fuel rods.

Meanwhile, the top U.S. nuclear regulator said that the fourth reactor’s cooling pool for spent fuel rods may have run dry and another was leaking.

“There is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures,” Gregory Jaczko, head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

“It would be very difficult for emergency workers to get near the reactors. The doses they could experience would potentially be lethal doses in a very short period of time.”

The US is chartering aircraft to help Americans get out of Japan.

UPDATED WEDNESDAY 8.45am: Fears of a nuclear disaster in Japan are rising after elevated radiation levels were detected in Tokyo following an explosion at a crippled nuclear power plant.

News that the level of radiation in the city is 10 times normal has prompted some people to flee the city, despite officials saying that level of radiation poses no immediate threat to human health.

“The possibility of further radioactive leakage is heightening,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in an address to the nation.“We are making every effort to prevent the leak from spreading. I know that people are very worried but I would like to ask you to act calmly.”

Operators of the damages plant say one of the blasts blew a hole in the building housing a reactor, leaving spent nuclear fuel exposed to the atmosphere.

Japanese media report that major stores have sold out of emergency supplies such as radios, flashlights, candles and sleeping bags.

Natural health websites are also reporting a rush to buy potassium iodide, a supplement that can help protect the glandular system against radiation poisoning.

While authorities battle to prevent a nuclear crisis, they also have their hands full trying to help the tens of thousands left homeless following Friday’s magnitude 9.0 quake and the tsunami that followed.

UPDATED TUESDAY 4pm: Media are reporting that radiation is spewing from damaged reactors at a damaged nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan prompting the government to tell people to stay indoors to avoid exposure.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said there is the danger of more leaks and sad that people living within 30 kilometres of the Fukushima Daiichi complex should stay indoors.

In a  televised statement, Kan said radiation has spread from four reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima province that was one of the hardest-hit in Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami.

"The level seems very high, and there is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out,"  Mr Kan said.

UPDATED TUESDAY 8am: A New Zealand urban search and rescue team (Usar) will be based just 130km from an at-risk nuclear reactor in Japan.  Radiation has risen at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant and there was an explosion there yesterday afternoon.

Friday's 9.0 magnitude quake that shook northeastern Japan caused major problems at six reactors. But the danger is greatest at two reactors at Dai-ichi, where one explosion occurred on Saturday and a second yesterday afternoon (NZT).

New Zealand's Usar team has arrived in Japan. Just over 50 people have been sent, 46 of them search and rescue team members and the rest support staff, such as translators.

"We have sought advice on the risks in terms of the issues involving the Japanese nuclear reactors," Prime Minister John Key told reporters."The team will be operating in an area about 130km from the reactor and they will be with the Australian Usar personnel. The team was given refresher training in managing and monitoring radiation exposure before they left and have taken protective equipment with them.

UPDATED Monday 3.50pm: Japan's earthquake and tsunami will strike a blow to the New Zealand economy already grappling with the consequences of the earthquakes in Christchurch, economists say.

Bank of New Zealand said economic ties were strong between the two countries. Japan was New Zealand's fourth biggest trading partner and was also a key source of tourists to New Zealand.

Around 8 percent of New Zealand's exports, by value, go to Japan. Of this, nearly one-fifth is unwrought aluminium, no doubt from the Tiwai Point smelter, BNZ said.

Roughly half of New Zealand's imports from Japan are in the form of vehicles, with mechanical and electrical machinery and equipment making up the bulk of the rest.

The student tourist market would also suffer, as Japanese students were prominent in this market. However, the student tourist market had already been hurt by the Christchurch earthquakes.

"Economic implications for the Chinese economy are worth thinking about, given its increased integration with the Japanese economy over recent decades," BNZ said.

ASB economists noted Japan's importance to New Zealand as a trading partner but said key economic sectors in Japan had escaped relatively unscathed so far.

The current risks to Japan's economy largely stemmed from the risk of nuclear meltdown and disruption to the electricity supply. "For now, we anticipate the disruption to New Zealand exports is likely to be limited. Looking ahead, forestry is New Zealand's second largest merchandise export to Japan, leaving New Zealand well placed when reconstruction efforts eventually begin," ASB said.

UPDATED Monday 10am: More than 10,000 people are feared dead in Japan after a giant earthquake and tsunami and more than 500,000 people have been evacuated from the worst-hit areas, Japanese media report.

And officials are trying to prevent meltdowns at three nuclear reactors damaged by the magnitude 9.0 quake, the largest ever recorded in the quake-prone country.

Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the crisis was the worst the country had faced since 1945.“The earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear incident have been the biggest crisis Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War II,” Mr Kan told a news conference.
“We're under scrutiny on whether we, the Japanese people, can overcome this crisis.”

This morning a state of emergency was declared at a third power plant, in Onagawa, after crises at Fukushima and Tokai.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said there might have been a partial meltdown of the fuel rods at the No. 1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi.

He said engineers were pumping in seawater to prevent the same thing happening at the No. 3 reactor.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said radiation levels around the Fukushima Daiichi plant had risen above the safety limit but that it did not mean an "immediate threat" to human health.

About 180,000 people have been evacuated from areas around the plants.

UPDATE Sunday 8am:  An explosion at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant last night destroyed the concrete structure housing the power station's reactor, Japanese authorities say. But a steel container surrounding the reactor remained intact.

Three workers were evacuated from the blast area after suffering radiation poisoning, said NHK. Each received the safe annual radiation exposure in a single day, according to the Japanese broadcaster. They were told to rest rather than being hospitalised. Around 160 people could have been exposed to radiation according to Japan's nuclear agency. Four workers at the plant were injured in the blast. Their injuries are said to be not life-threatening.

A Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official sought to put the level of exposure into perspective by saying that the measured level 1200 uSv/h compares with 6,900 uSv/h for a CT scan. However, the fear of a meltdown remains.

The general population had already been evacuated behind a 10km exclusion zone around Fukushima-Daiichi, and its sister plant Fukushima-Daini. The exclusion zone has now been extended to 20km. 

Around 210,000 people have now been evacuated.

 Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, told media that while there was radiation leakage in the area, it occured before the blast. Radiation levels since the blast had failed, Mr Adano said.

The cooling system at Fukushima-Daiichi - located 257km north of Tokyo - failed after Friday's quake. Fukushima-Daini was damaged to a lesser extent.

Tokyo Electric Power, which owns both plants, said it should be able to continue cooling Fukushima-Daiichi's core and prevent the release of large amounts of radioactive material and avoid a full core meltdown at the plant.

Deliberate release of radioactive steam
Steam, with some level of radioactivity, was deliberately released from several of the reactors at both plants in an effort to relieve the huge amount of pressure building up inside. In the case of Fukushima-Daiichi number one reactor - where the explostion took place - the process was unsuccessful.

Although the government has described the radiation leak as "small" it has continually expanded the exclusion zone - from 3km to 10km and now 20km - and has told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it was preparing to distribute iodine to people who live in around the two plants.

Iodine helps protect the thyroid gland from radiation exposure.

11 reactors shutdown
Friday's quake triggered the automatic shutdown of 11 of the Japan nuclear power reactors, including reactor units 1,2 and 3 at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant. Reactor units 4, 5 and 6 were undergoing routine inspections, so were not operating.

Before the quake, nuclear power had been enjoying something of a renaissance, seen by some previous foes as increasingly attractive as a low carbon emission form of electricity generation. Over this weekend, Greenpeace has been quick to strike back, issuing a series of "explainers" about the Fukushima-Daiichi leaks.

In one town, 9500 missing
While the official death toll remains under 1000, missing person reports indicate it will rise.

According to Tokyo based technology journalist Martyn Williams, the local government covering the town of Minamisanriku (population 19,500) has reported that 9500 people are missing.

BELOW: The blast around Fukushima-Daiichi's number one reactor, caught on Japanese TV:

ABOVE: CCTV footage of the moment the tsunami engulfed Sendai airport.

UPDATE Saturday 5pm: There is no connection between February's Christchurch earthquake and the massive Japanese quake as the quakes were thousands of kilometres and several weeks apart, scientists say.

Japan is dealing with a damaged nuclear reactor, widespread fires and the impact of a devastating tsunami in the wake of yesterday's 8.9-magnitude earthquake, where up to 1000 people are feared dead.

It packed about 8000 times more energy than Christchurch's 6.3-magnitude quake on February 22, said Professor Polat Gulkan, president of the International Association for Earthquake Engineering.

"They are both on the same so-called Pacific Ring of Fire belt but are so far from one another that it's a very remote possibility that one triggered the other."

David Rothery, from Britain's Open University, gave an emphatic "no" when asked if the quakes were related.

Lisa McNeil, senior lecturer in geology at the University of Southampton, said earthquakes happen regularly on active faults around the world.

"So it is not surprising to have a magnitude 6.3 earthquake (in New Zealand) followed several weeks later by a magnitude 8-9 earthquake somewhere else."

BELOW: A tiny fishing boat (centre of photo) is caught in a tsunami-induced whirlpool off the port of Oarai. Office workers in Tokyo watch an oil refinery fire caused by the quake in Chiba, north of the city.

ABOVE: Tokyo buildings swaying - as they were designed to do - during yesterday's quake. BELOW: A Japanese TV clip shows the tsunami hitting north-eastern Japan. More videos end of story.

ABOVE: A crack in the road, posted to Twitter by @lula_serginho.

UPDATE Saturday 1pm:New Zealand will send 48 search and rescue team members to Japan within the next 24 hours, Prime Minister John Key ha told reporters in Auckland. He said there had not been any New Zealand deaths reported yet form the devastating quake. The six will travel to Japan tonight and the balance of a team of 48 would probably leave tomorrow, following a request from Japan, he said this afternoon.

The New Zealand Embassy in Tokyo is checking the whereabouts and safety of New Zealanders thought to be in the four most affected prefectures of northeast Japan. New Zealanders with concerns about family in Japan should try to contact them directly in the first instance. If they cannot make contact and they are known to be in the northeast of Japan they should contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on 0800 432 111. If calling from overseas call +64 439 8000.

New Zealand's ambassador in Japan said up to 20 New Zealanders are thought to be unaccounted for in earthquake-hit areas of Japan. Ian Kennedy said between 10 and 20 New Zealanders were unaccounted for but phone lines were working again and embassy staff were trying to make contact.

He said at least 6000 New Zealanders could be in Japan, with about 3500 registered with Japanese authorities as living in Japan and at least a further 3000 visiting the country. 

BELOW: The tsunami looms over homes in Natori:

UPDATE Saturday 11am: Civil Defence is repeating its warning that people  should stay away from beaches and off waterways despite the country no longer being on a tsunami warning.

GNS Science's tsunami gauge chart registered that the surge reached Manukau Harbour, Auckland, Tauranga, Gisborne, Napier and the Chatham Islands late this morning. 

At Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, about 1100km northeast of New Zealand, the first arrival was recorded at 6.35am. The first wave to hit mainland New Zealand was recorded at North Cape at 7.10am.

The initial waves were about 15cm high and increased from about 8.30am to 30-40cm. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre has removed New Zealand from the list of countries subject to the tsunami warning, however Civil Defence says its marine and minor land threat warnings remains in effect.

The last of the Japanese international rescue teams which have been working in Christchurch is leaving Auckland today to return home.

Prime Minister John Key said he had watched with horror at the scenes of devastation in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that has struck Japan in the past few hours.

“Our hearts go out to the Japanese Government and its people. Japan responded to New Zealand’s own tragic earthquake with enormous support, and we are ready to help our friends in Japan at this time of need in whatever way we can. Our deepest sympathies are with those who have been caught up in this most terrible event."

Waves hitting New Zealand from the Japanese quake-generated tsunami have increased in height to about 40cm this morning, Civil Defence said.

The first wave arrivals were measured by coastal gauges. At Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, about 1100km northeast of New Zealand, the first arrival was recorded at 6.35am and at North Cape at 7.10am.

The initial waves were about 15cm high and increased from about 8.30am to 30-40cm. 

"It is important to note that higher wave amplitudes are expected to follow in the next few hours based on modelling,'' Civil Defence said, following Japan's deadly 8.9-magnitude quake yesterday. 

There was a marine and minor land threat only for parts of the upper North Island coasts, according to the New Zealand Tsunami Expert Panel. 

Based on modelling and experience, the minor land threat - wave heights just over 1m and with a small potential to affect beaches - applied to Northland between Ahipara and the Karikari Peninsula as well as in the Bay of Islands and the Chatham Islands. 

The marine threat - to the coastal area and for small boats - remained in place for the northern North Island from Kaipara to Ahipara and south of the Karikari Peninsula, around Coromandel Peninsula and Bay of Plenty to Gisborne. 

People were advised to stay off beaches and out of the water, not to go sightseeing and let others know of the threat.

UPDATE Saturday 9.30am: The Defence Tusnami warning remains in place. GNS guages have reported waves hitting around North Cape (at 7.10am), Great Barrier Island and East Cape.

"Initial wave amplitudes are in the order of 15cm and have been increased over the last 30 minutes to 30-40 cm," Civil Defence said in a 9.03am statement.

"It is important to note that higher wave amplitudes are expected to follow in the next few hours based on modelling."

"The New Zealand Tsunami Expert Panel assessment is that there is a marine and minor land threat only for parts of the upper North Island coasts of New Zealand."

See the graphic and table below for region-by-region arrival times.

People are warned to keep out of the water, and off beaches and waterways. Although the initial impact is modest, larger waves could come over the next few hours, and unusual tides are currents are expected.

UPDATE Saturday 6am: At least 300 people were killed in yesterday's quake, which was the strongest ever recorded in the country, and one of the strongest, anywhere, over the past century.

Early reports had damage confined to the north-east of the country, which bore the brunt of the tsunami after the 8.9 magnitude quake struck around 120km offshore.

In the northern city of Sendai, officials said 200 bodies had been found, and there was widespread property damage. The death toll is expected to rise.

Relatively small tsunami waves were reported in Halmahera, Indonesia, but did little harm, according to initial. Russia, China and Indonesia canceled their warnings after a few hours.

Here, authorities remain on alert.

In a 5.50am update, NZ Civil Defence said a tsunami marine and minor land threat warning is still in effect for New Zealand.

The first waves could hit at 6.23am, but the agency cautions that actual arrival time could be up to one hour later than calculated times.

Below are Civil Defence's threat level map, including maximum wave height at shore; green areas 1m - 3m; blue areas 20cm to 1m (click to zoom) and arrival times by region.

People have been told to stay out of the water, off beaches, and away from waterways.

Waves, or unusual tides and currents, could continue for several hours.

Estimated wave arrival times (click to zoom):

ABOVE: Japanese TV images of the Tusnami hitting north eastern Japan.

UPDATE 10.30pm: Below are possible NZ tsunami arrival times, according to the US government website

NZ Civi Defence has commissioned an emergency panel, but has yet to issue a warning. The US Pacific Tsunami Watch Centre has issued a tsunami watch alert, but not yet a tsunami warning.

At this stage, NZ Civil Defence says there is no significant land threat, only a possible marine threat. People are warned to stay off beaches, and to bring boats into shore where possible.

Civil Defence warns that if it impacts New Zealand, the tsunami could arrive up to an hour either side of the official warning times.

The first waves would not necessarily be the strongest. Waves, or strong or unusual currents, could continue for several hours.

The north east of Northland and the Bay of Plenty are most at risk. Any impact will hit at low tide, minimising impact.

View Japan earthquake in a larger map

FRIDAY, 7.30pm: A massive quake has hit Japan this afternoon, just after 2.46pm local time (6.46pm NZ time). 

The US Geological Survey said the quake was magnitude 8.9, which the agency labeled a “mega” quake. The tremor occurred at about 125km off the country's east coast, at a depth of around 10km.

Around 8.45pm New Zealand time, the US Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre has issued a Tsunami warning for multiple areas, including New  Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Hawaii and countries on the west coast of South America. People have been told to keep off beaches.

From the East Coast of the US, software developer and Rene Sugar tweeted "Tsunami sirens are going off on the Oregon coast. This has never happened in my entire life."

The New Zealand Civil Defence Advisory Panel has been convened in Wellington.

But as of 9.10pm, Civil Defence had not issued an official tsunami warning.

The quake triggered a tsunami that hit the north-east of the country,wiith 4m-10m waves causing extensive damage.

Japanese channel NHK TV showed cars, ships and even buildings being swept away the Fukushima prefecture.

Officials said a wave as high as 6m (20ft) could strike the coast.

The tremor has been followed by a series of powerful aftershocks, including one measuring 7.4.

The airport at Sendai, 2km inland, was flooded.

Immediate reports had 30 people injured and three fatalities. The toll was expected to rise.

An oil refinery fire in Chiba, north of Tokyo (pictured), was raging out of control, reported NHK.

ABOVE: a tiny fishing boat (centre) is caught in a tsunami-induced whirlpool off the Japanese port of Oarai (click to zoom).
ABOVE: a tiny fishing boat (centre) is caught in a tsunami-induced whirlpool off the Japanese port of Oarai (click to zoom).
NBR staff
Fri, 11 Mar 2011
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UPDATED: Japan quake: power restored to 3 stricken reactors