Environment

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.

Update: 

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 (Update to the update: NBC reports that workers were withdrawn for around 45 minutes as radiation levels spiked and have since returned.)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.

Update: 

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.

 

Update:

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.

Update:  

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." 

Update:

While some of the immediate danger is ameliorated as of Tuesday, March 15th, with "radiation levels falling sharply," considerable danger remains. The remaining workers are risking their own health and lives to keep the problems at the Fukishima Daishi plant under control.  The New York Times reports:

In a brief morning address to the nation Prime Minister Naoto Kan pleaded for calm but warned that radiation that had leaked earlier had already spread from the crippled reactors and that there was “a very high risk” of further leakage.

The Guardian has a similar story, and mentions that the continuing problems with the nuclear plants is exacerbating the growing humanitarian crisis caused by the earthquake and tsunami:

"Fears of fresh contamination are an extra concern for refugees across the region. Water, food and fuel are in desperately short supply in Ishinomaki, one of the cities worst affected by the disaster. According to the deputy mayor, Etsuro Kitamura, 40,000 refugees in evacuation centres are having to live on just one rice ball a day.

Update: Democracy Now! has interviews with green activistswho recommend much more extreme evacuation measures than are currently being taken in Japan. "We're very concerned with complete lack of environmental monitoring..." said anti-nuclear activist Aileen Mioko Smith. "People need to be evacuated further." Smith also said that many of these affected plants had been protested before their buildingdue to seismic concerns.

Update:

All eyes are watching the catastrophic events occurring at the 6-reactor Fukushima Number 1 nuclear power plant. During a bleak moment in Japan's history, there is a bit of good news from Fukushima Number 2, located 11 kilometers from the crippled plant: NHK reports that the temperature of the last of Fukushima Number 2's four reactors was successfully brought down today. All four reactors were automatically shut down after the March 11 quake, but three of the reactors' cooling systems were damaged, and officials had prepared for a possible release of radioactive steam the following day. In the end, technicians were able to get the systems back on line and bring all three to a "cold shutdown" -- Units 1 and 3 yesterday, followed by Unit 4 today.

Update:

In AlterNet's "Hot News and Views" section, some context and info about the crisis. Rachel Maddow explains the mechanics of nuclear meltdown and Digby debunks myths about radiation exposure. We also have Glenn Beck's predictably outlandish reaction to the natural disaster and the reverberations from the crisis in nuclear-reliant Europe. 

Update:

Several media agencies are reporting that the fire at Unit 4 (see below) has now been extinguished.

Update:

The New York Times reports that "most of the 800 workers at the Daiichi facility had been told to leave to avoid exposure to unhealthy levels of radiation at the plant. They said 50 workers would remain at the plant to pump seawater into three reactors and fight the fire at the fourth reactor."

Update:

Via Twitter, Voice of America's Steve Herman cites a report by the Kyodo News Agency that "small amounts" of above normal levels of radiation have been detected in Tokyo.

Update:

According to NHK news, thousands of residents in a 20-kilometer radius of two uncontrolled nuclear reactors have been ordered evacuated. Officials have warned those within a 30-kilometer radius to stay indoors, close their doors and windows and turn off their air conditioners. 

450,000 Japanese citizens are sheltering in 2,500 emergency shelters, which are running low on food and fuel. According to NHK, in one shelter, "many survivors are beginning to suffer from health conditions" but "there is no medication whatsoever" to treat them.

Update:

On Tuesday, Japan's nuclear safety agency reported that a third explosion had occurred at  Unit 2 of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. BBC quoted an official saying that it is "highly likely" that the nuclear rods which fuel the most powerful facility on the planet are melting, at least partially. Bloomberg reports that the heavy containment chamber may have been damaged or breached, potentially releasing radiation into the atmosphere.  This followed an explosion that blew the building off of Unit 1 on Saturday, and a massive blast that injured 11 workers at Unit 3 on Monday. Officials told reporters that a fire that had broken out in Unit 4 earlier in the day was still being fought, and that radiation would likely be released as a result.

TEPCO, the operator of the plant, reported that radiation levels recorded at the entrance to the plant were such that in just one hour one would receive three times the exposure that an average person would receive in an entire year. Workers who had been desperately trying to keep the core under control have been evacuated. Al Jazeera's Harry Fawcett, reporting from Ichinoseki, said that people in the area "didn't know what was happening and they wonder what they can do. Some say that they can't get out due to lack of fuel." The Japanese government continues to reassure citizens that the danger of radiation is not severe, but as Aileen Mioko Smith, executive director of Green Action, told reporters earlier in the day, they have so far not been forthcoming with specific information regarding the leak. Smith suggested that authorities were trying to keep an already traumatized population from panicking, but as a result the Japanese people aren't being prepared for the worst-case scenario.

Update:

On a conference call with reporters prior to the explosion, Damon Moglen, director of the climate and energy project at Friends of the Earth, said that his organization had obtained a memo issued by the French government cautioning that if the worst-case scenario should occur, large amounts of radioactivity could reach densely populated Tokyo "within hours," and advising its nationals to spend a few days elsewhere if they could. 

Experts say there is minimal risk to human health on the West Coast of the US because the distance that radioactivity would have to travel is so great that it would be highly dispersed by the time it arrived. But earlier in the day, radioactivity was detected on the USS Ronald Reagan, which had been positioned off the coast of Honshu Island. The Ronald Reagan is the leading vessel in a group of ships from the 7th fleet that has been assisting the Japanese Self-Defense Force. Al Jazeera reports that as of Tuesday evening, "US 7th Fleet ships conducting disaster response operations in the area moved out of the downwind direction from the site." Damon Moglen told reporters that the U.S. government hadn't released any details about the type or quantity of contamination that was discovered on the ship, information he argued the public "has a right to know." 

Update:

Al Jazeera has launched an interactive map that displays news, videos, tweets, and photos of the affected areas of the country.

The outlet also reports that the official death toll has now been increased to more than 3,370.

Meanwhile, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano confirmed to reporters that there was "a possibility of core damage" at the bottom of the containment vessel for the number 2 reactor. "Is it a crack? Is it a hole? Is it nothing? That we don't know yet," he said.

Update:

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of some 200,000 scientists from around the globe (including Nobel winners), says that the radiation plume released by yesterday's explosion and possible damage to the reactor's containment vessel could reach Tokyo, while the plant's "jerry-rigged" cooling system would be very hard to keep working if all the workers were evacuated. (There are currently about 50 workers still at the facility.) The group believes that the evacuation zone around the facility should be expanded.

Update:

The IAEA says that the Tokyo Electric Power Company may remove panels from reactors 5 and 6 to avoid the same hydrogen build-up and subsequent explosions that took place at Fukushima's other reactors. "Units 5 and 6 were shut down at the time of the earthquake but both reactors are currently loaded with fuel," the UN agency said.

Update:

Al Jazeera now says that two Fukushima workers are missing following yesterday's explosion at the plant: "it's understood they were in the turbine area of the No.4 reactor when a fire broke out."

Furthermore, it's now been confirmed that there's a crack in the roof of reactor 4.

And yet more unsettling news: The U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security says that the situation at Fukushima has "worsened
considerably" and worries that it will end up being a 7 on the 7-point International Nuclear Events Scale. The crisis was upgraded to a 6 yesterday, putting it somewhere between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl on the scale of nuclear catastrophes. Chernobyl is the only nuclear crisis that has ever been declared a level-7.

"A level 6 event means that consequences are broader and countermeasures are needed to deal with the radioactive contamination. A level 7 event would constitute a larger release of radioactive material, and would require further extended countermeasures," said the Institute for Science and International Security in a statement.

Update:

Erring on the side of caution, German leaders have announced that the country's seven nuclear facilities that were built before 1980 will be shut down for a three-month review. The New York Times:

The move came as European energy ministers in Brussels considered the introduction of stress tests in order to see how the bloc’s 143 nuclear plants would react in emergencies.

Here is a map of all the U.S. nuclear power plants that sit precariously on fault lines.

Update: Reuters is reporting that reactor 4 is on fire again.