Japanese nuclear plant hit by fire and third explosionRadiation around Fukushima Daiichi plant has reached levels damaging to health
Jonathan Watts in Ishinomaki and Tania Branigan in Beijing guardian.co.uk,
Tuesday 15 March 2011 14.13 GMT
The explosion on Tuesday at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Photograph: Abc Tv/EPA
Japan is facing the world's biggest nuclear crisis for decades as engineers struggle to regain control of the Fukushima plant following another explosion and a fire that caused a spike in radiation to harmful levels.
Amid growing fears that the situation is heading for catastrophe, 70 technicians are still battling to cool reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi facility but non-essential personnel have been ordered to leave and the Kyodo news agency reported that radiation levels have become too high for staff to remain in control rooms. The government has already called in international help in tackling the spiralling crisis.
Early on Tuesday, the power plant in the country's stricken north-east was rocked by an explosion at the No 2 reactor, the third blast at the site in four days. That was followed by a fire that broke out at the No 4 reactor unit, which appeared to be the cause of today's radiation leaks. That reactor was shut down for maintenance before the earthquake, but its spent fuel rods are stored in a pool at the site. The fire was later extinguished but Kyodo reported that the pool was subsequently boiling, with the water level falling. If the water boils off there is a risk that the fuel could catch fire, sending a plume of radiation directly into the atmosphere.
Radiation levels at one location on the site reached 400 millisieverts (mSv) an hour after the fire - four times the level that can lead to cancer - the chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, said. But levels had lowered dramatically by the end of the day, according to the International Atomic Energy Authority.
The government ordered any inhabitants remaining within the 12-mile (20km) radius exclusion zone to leave immediately, told those between 12 miles and 19 miles away to stay indoors and imposed a 19-mile no-fly zone. Experts backed their assessment that health risks beyond that area were minimal at present.
The news was a fresh blow for a region already reeling from the impact of Friday's magnitude 8.9 earthquake and devastating tsunami.
At midday Tuesday, Japan's national police agency said 2,475 people were confirmed dead and 3,611 were missing, while NHK reported 3,000 dead with 15,000 unaccounted for. Emergency broadcasts on NHK television underscored the near-apocalyptic scenario that was unfolding at Fukushima.
"For those in the evacuation area, close your windows and doors. Switch off your air conditioners. If you are being evacuated, cover yourself as much as possible and wear a facemask. Stay calm."
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.
For Hiroko Kodo, news of the nuclear explosion was a rude return to the world of mass communications. Since Friday she had been cut off from television, internet and mobile phone networks. But the Red Cross provided her with a radio among an emergency kit it distributed to all the refugees. "When I turned it on, I heard about the radiation. It is terrifying. I'm afraid now to drink the water from the mountains in case it is contaminated."
Workers at the Fukushima plant have been struggling since Friday to avert a disaster after cooling systems failed in the aftermath of the quake. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been evacuated from areas within 12 miles of the facility as a precaution.
Readings in parts of the facility hit levels indicating an immediate risk of damage to people without protective gear, Edano said.
The prime minister, Naoto Kan, asked people to remain calm in a televised address but warned: "Radiation has spread from these reactors and the reading of the level seems high ... There's still a very high risk of further radioactive material coming out." He added that workers were "putting themselves in a very dangerous situation" to try to contain the problems.
With confidence diminishing in the ability of the plant owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), to handle the crisis, Kan had already said he would personally lead a new joint response headquarters.
According to Kyodo, the prime minister called executives at the power company to demand "what the hell is going on?"
Tokyo has asked the UN nuclear watchdog for expert help and the US nuclear regulatory commission for equipment. Officials have also begun to distribute potassium iodide, which can help inhibit the uptake of radioactive iodide by the thyroid, to evacuation centres.
Officials said the explosion at the No 2 unit appeared to have damaged the reactor's containment structure, which prevents radioactive materials from leaking in the event of meltdown. That is of particular concern because the building housing the reactor was damaged by the hydrogen blast at neighbouring unit No 3, experts told the news agency.
Edano told reporters that workers were continuing to inject water to cool units 1 to 3. The No 2 reactor was not as stable as the others, but the water injection was working "to a certain level", he added.
Tepco admitted for the first time that there was a possibility of partial meltdown, Kyodo reported. Officials have already gauged that as a "high possibility".
Edano told reporters that beyond the 12-mile radius the level should be reduced to one where harm to human health would be minimal or non-existent, although that would depend on wind speed and direction. He said a "minimal amount" of radioactive material might spread to metropolitan areas, but not at harmful levels, adding: "We want you to keep calm. We can continue with our daily lives."
In Tokyo, the metropolitan government said radiation reached around 20 times normal levels in the capital on Tuesday morning but said governor Shintaro Ishihara said the levels would "not immediately cause health problems".
Prof David Hinde, head of the department of nuclear physics at the Australian National University, said it was the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, but stressed it was on a far smaller scale.
The maximum radiation level was "very, very serious" for workers on site, who would only be able to remain there for the briefest periods. But the risk to those outside the exclusion zone was very small, particularly when seen in the context of their situation as a whole.
"Compared to the risk of being on a plain near the sea it's negligible ... no one is looking at the black smoke from the fires and wondering where those carcinogens are going," he said.
An expert told the broadcaster NHK that the situation was "very grave", warning that without protective gear a level of 100mSv could be enough to cause male infertility in a short time.
He also said those in the 12-mile to 19-mile zone should dust off their hair and clothes before entering their building, including brushing off the soles of their shoes. Once inside they should close windows and turn off air conditioning. Any laundry hanging out should be left outside.
Japan's central bank pumped billions more dollars into the economy as stocks plunged more than 10% on the back of the news, following a major injection on Monday.
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