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Japan Nuclear Disaster: White Steam Seen Over Reactor; Situation Upgraded to a 6 on 7-Point Nuclear Event Scale

Japanese officials acknowledged for the first time that radiation released from damaged reactors was sufficient to be "harmful to human health."

Japan stands poised on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe, even as the death toll from the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the island-nation continues to rise. Around 3,000 3,370 are confirmed dead and tens of thousands remain missing. 

According to the Guardian, "rescue and relief operations in Japan have been hampered by continuous aftershocks, tsunami alerts and fires," and the Japanese Meteorological Agency warned that  aftershocks from the 9.0-magnitude earthquake will continue for as long as a month. The US Geological Survey says the quake shifted Japan's location by as much as 8 feet, and "may have shortened the length of each Earth day and shifted its axis."

AlterNet is following events closely as they unfold, and will continue to update this file as news breaks -- check back to stay on top of this huge story.


Multiple media sources are reporting that the last 50-70 workers who had been struggling to contain the disaster at Fukushima No. 1 were evacuated as radiation levels rose rapidly at the site. (Update to the update: NBC reports that workers were withdrawn for around 45 minutes as radiation levels spiked and have since returned.)

NHK news reports that white steam has been seen rising over the plant, but the source was unclear.


We mentioned in passing the danger being faced by the 70 or so workers who remain at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant, but their situation merits more attention. CBS reports that "dozens of workers are braving serious health risks to bring the country's persistent nuclear crisis under control."

Officials at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. said 70 workers were at the Fukushima nuclear complex, dealing with a range of problems. They are wearing protective gear and are being rotated in and out of danger zones to limit exposure to the harmful radiation, reports the Associated Press....


"These people are the heroes of the hour," Cham Dallas, director of the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia, told CBSNews.com, noting that the control room workers might be exposed to much higher radiation that the readings farther afield (although the control rooms are designed to block out radiation and may also be quite safe).


Dallas said that a friend who works in Japanese emergency operations is in contact with one of the control room workers.


"He says he is ready to die if necessary. He's willing to die if he has to stay in there. It's his job is what he said," Dallas said, recounting what he was told about an email message between the two.



The AP reported that a fire has broken out again at reactor 4 of the troubled nuclear power plant where there have been 3 explosions since the earthquake. AP reports:

Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Hajimi Motujuku says the blaze erupted early Wednesday in the outer housing of the reactor's containment vessel. Fire fighters are trying to put out the flames. Japan's nuclear safety agency also confirmed the fire, whose cause was not immediately known.

On Tuesday, a fire broke out in the reactor's fuel storage pond — an area where used nuclear fuel is kept cool — causing radioactivity to be released into the atmosphere.

NHK World TV reported that workers could not enter the building but that the fire extinguished itself after 30 minutes.


New aftershocks are still occurring in Japan. According to the Associated Press, there have been two: "the first, measuring 6.2 in magnitude, struck Tuesday night off the coast of Fukushima prefecture, 200 miles (325 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo and near where a massive quake hit last week....Three minutes later, a second 6.0-magnitude quake rumbled under Shizuoka prefecture, 55 miles (90 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo." 

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