Time is running out for emergency workers in Japan seeking to restore electricity to the quake-stricken Fukushima nuclear plant to re-power the reactor’s cooling systems and avert a catastrophe.
Tokyo Electric Power Company said it was hoping power would be back on at two of the reactors by Saturday to avert a disastrous release of radiation from the plant damaged in last Friday’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake. Attempts on Thursday to connect a one-kilometer long power cable from the grid to the plant failed due to the extent of the damage caused by this week’s series of explosions in the reactor buildings. The company also said it may consider the option of encasing the plant in concrete, but plans to first focus on cooling the facility.
Early on Friday, smoke was reported to be rising from reactor 2, after some 64 tons of water had been sprayed on the reactors. More fire trucks continued to deliver water to cool the overheating reactors from as far as Tokyo.
Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, arrived in Tokyo on Friday to meet with Japan’s top officials and to inspect the disaster area. He said he views the looming crisis as an accident of extreme seriousness and has therefore pressed for Japan to accept international help to avert a full-scale fallout. The agency has also urged Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan to disclose more information on the country’s nuclear crisis.
Tony Barrell, a documentary filmmaker who has covered Japan extensively, says the country’s manner of secrecy in relation to its nuclear facilities and the use of plutonium has rightfully fueled international concerns.
“Part of the problem at Fukushima is that there are spent fuel rods, which contain plutonium, which is just sitting there,” Barrell said. “Japan has a surplus of plutonium – something like 40 tons at the moment – and we all know what plutonium can be used for if it is modified… That is the sort of thing that Japan’s neighbors are extremely worried about.”
Meanwhile, on Friday Japan’s NHK TV network reported that the country’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has recorded a slight drop in the radiation level a kilometer away from Fukushima – 279.4 microsieverts per hour compared to Thursday night’s reading of 292.2.
Uri Dayan, Professor of Synoptic Meteorology and Climatology at Hebrew University, says his estimates indicate the winds are unlikely to spread radiation to neighboring Tokyo and Osaka.
The winds are facing the south – that is to say that the contaminated plume won’t reach Osaka or Tokyo in these coming days
,” Dayan said. “
And fortunately, no washout of this radioactive cloud or radioactive rain is anticipated since precipitation will stop in the coming hours
Japanese police say 6,539 people have been confirmed dead and 10,354 are considered missing following the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami.
Anonymous heroes try to save Japan from nuclear disaster
Mankind’s modern marvels: reaching the moon, a particle collider to uncover the secrets of creation, and trying to master nuclear technology.
But those advances can come to nothing when nature strikes, and atomic energy’s awesome power becomes hard to contain.
Days after the Fukushima plant’s first explosion, Japan’s leaders implore everyone to stay calm. Helicopters and water cannon were deployed to cool the reactors, and yet the situation remains critical.
“Of course I do not think it will require as much manpower. There has been a lot of technological progress made over the last 30 years,” said Vladislav Shurygin, a military expert for Zavtra newspaper. “Still, it is important to understand that the number of people who will have to operate in the affected area and who will be affected by radiation will be very large. That’s because some things can only be done manually.”
In 1986, the Soviet Union mobilized thousands of people to battle the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
Japan now has the “Faceless 50” – anonymous workers, putting themselves up against radiation, to keep the reactors from nuclear meltdown – and the fate of millions now rests in the hands of a few dozen.
“Certainly their lives are immediately at stake and clearly they have sacrificed any kind of long life. This is clearly an exposure that jeopardizes their immediate health,” said Paul Gunter, Director of Beyond Nuclear’s Reactor Oversight Project.
The Soviet Union essentially ordered its citizens to sacrifice their lives when battling radiation in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.
But Japan is a democratic state, and the workers who remain at the Fukushima plant are doing that willingly.
The main question, however, is whether their efforts will be enough to keep the situation from taking a turn for worse.
“The amount of radiation being released now and the amount of radiation that will be released in the coming future is so great that actually the whole globe will be affected,” Igor Khokhlov from the Institute of World Economics and International Relations said.
“In Chernobyl, when only one power unit was affected, the radiation covered the whole globe. So the magnitude of the looming disaster cannot be predicted now, but definitely it is going to be one of the worst nuclear disasters in world history.”
Technology has a nasty habit of turning against humans, and when that happens, the equipment does not yet exist to send machines in to put things right.
In the end, it takes human risk and sacrifice to prevent a technological tragedy from becoming a large-scale catastrophe.