Progress at Fukushima-1: too little, but not yet too late

Cooling systems at reactors 5 and 6 at the earthquake-stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant are working again, Japan’s Nuclear Safety Agency stated Saturday morning. Desperate attempts to cool down the most troubled reactors 1, 2, 3 and 4 continue.

Restoring a stable source of electric power is a key step to prevent further deterioration of the situation at Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant. It is crucial to reactivate the cooling system down in the reactor cores and in water tanks storing the spent fuel rods. Efforts to reconnect all power lines have so far not succeeded due to high radiation levels. Still, Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the plant, hopes to complete reconnection of reactor 2 later on Saturday.

The alert level at Fukushima-1 plant was raised from 4 to 5 on the international 7-level scale of nuclear accidents by the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency on Friday. The 1985 Chernobyl meltdown has been the only grade 7 accident.

Grade 5 means that wider consequences are expected and the accident is no longer regarded as a localized problem. The operators of the nuclear plant had to raise the alert level as the cores of reactors 2 and 3 are believed to be damaged. The exact expected consequences are as yet unknown. 

The Self-Defense forces continue using water cannon, helicopters and fire trucks to spray water through cracks in the walls and roofs of the reactor buildings. Priority is being given to reactors 3 and 4, where the water level in the pool with spent fuel rods is believed to be dangerously low. If the water in the pools gets too low, it will trigger the exposure of the fuel rods which might result in radioactive substances leaking out. Tokyo Fire Department forces have also joined the operation.

Despite all the cooling efforts at Fukushima-1, the reactors are at 100 degrees Celsius or lower against the norm of 25 degrees. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has confirmed that putting water into reactor 3 has been successful only to some extent.

The Japanese government has attempted to reassure the population living over 30km away from the plant that their radiation risk is estimated to be zero per cent. The ministry observed radiation levels of 0.5 to 52 microsieverts per hour within a 30 to 60 kilometer radius of the Fukushima-1 plant. These levels are all higher than normal, but not an immediate threat to health.

Still, readings of radiation inside the 30km perimeter have are high: 70 microsieverts per hour on Thursday and 150 microsieverts on Friday. Experts say exposure to this amount of radiation for six hours would result in absorption of the maximum level considered safe for one year. Edano says the government will take appropriate measures if this level of contamination continues in the area for a long period.

Meanwhile, several farm products from areas near the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant have been found with high radiation levels, Vice Health Minister Kohei Otsuka said Saturday. The finding concerns three to four items, including spinach and milk, with the radiation level posing no immediate risk to human health.

Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan has refuted the allegations that the Japanese government is holding back any information regarding the crisis at Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant. “Concerning the nuclear power facility problem, we have been unveiling all the facts the Chief Cabinet Secretary and I were aware of,” he said. “I must tell you that the situation of the Fukushima nuclear power plant does not allow optimism.”

On the other hand, the World Health Organization’s spokesman Gregory Hartl said on Friday that the WHO is not advising any restrictions at the moment in regards of traveling to Japan. “In general, travelers returning from Japan do not represent a health hazard,” he added.

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