FUKUSHIMA, Japan |
(Reuters) - Japan struggled on Monday to avert a nuclear disaster and care for millions of people without power or water, three days after an earthquake and tsunami killed an estimated 10,000 people or more in the nation's darkest hour since World War Two.
The world's third-largest economy opens for business later on Monday, a badly wounded nation that has seen whole villages and towns wiped off the map by a wall of water, leaving in its wake an international humanitarian effort of epic proportion.
A grim-faced Prime Minister Naoto Kan described the crisis at Japan's worst since 1945, as officials confirmed that three nuclear reactors were at risk of overheating, raising fears of an uncontrolled radiation leak.
"The earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear incident have been the biggest crisis Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War II," Kan told a news conference.
"We're under scrutiny on whether we, the Japanese people, can overcome this crisis."
As he spoke, officials worked desperately to stop fuel rods in the damaged reactors from overheating. If they fail, the containers that house the core could melt, or even explode, releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere.
The most urgent crisis centers on the Fukushima Daiichi complex, where all three reactors are threatening to overheat, and where authorities say they have been forced to release radioactive steam into the air to relieve reactor pressure.
The complex, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, was rocked by an explosion on Saturday, which blew the roof off a reactor building. The government did not rule out further blasts there but said this would not necessarily damage the reactor vessels.
Authorities have poured sea water in all three of the complex's reactor to cool them down.
FEARS OVER OTHER REACTORS
The complex, run by Tokyo Electric Power Co, is the biggest nuclear concern but not the only one: on Monday, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Japanese authorities had notified it of an emergency at another plant further north, at Onagawa.
But Japan's nuclear safety agency denied problems at the Onagawa plant, run by Tohoku Electric Power Co, noting that radioactive releases from the Fukushima Daiichi complex had been detected at Onagawa, but that these were within safe levels at a tiny fraction of the radiation received in an x-ray.
Shortly later, a cooling-system problem was reported at another nuclear plant closer to Tokyo, in Ibaraki prefecture.
Fukushima's No. 1 reactor, where the roof was ripped off, is 40 years old and was originally set to go out of commission in February but had its operating license extended by 10 years.
Prime Minister Kan said the crisis was not another Chernobyl, referring to the nuclear disaster of 1986 in Soviet Ukraine.
The official announcement that two reactors at an earthquake-damaged nuclear plant could be suffering meltdowns underscores the Japanese nuclear industry's troubled history, and years of grass-roots objections from a people uniquely sensitive to the ravages of nuclear destruction.
The unfolding crisis at the two reactors, both at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, feeds into a resurgence of doubts about nuclear energy's safety even as it has gained credence as a source of clean energy in a time of mounting concerns about the environmental and public health tolls of fossil fuels.
The crisis stems from failures of the cooling systems at the reactors at the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi plant. At a nearby nuclear plant, Daini, three more reactors lost their cooling systems, and Japanese officials were scrambling on Sunday to determine whether the systems could be revived or would also need injections of cooling seawater.
Critics of nuclear energy have long questioned the viability of nuclear power in earthquake-prone regions like Japan. Reactors have been designed with such concerns in mind, but preliminary assessments of the Fukushima Daiichi accidents suggested that too little attention was paid to the threat of tsunami. It appeared that the reactors withstood the powerful earthquake, but the ocean waves damaged generators and backup systems, harming the ability to cool the reactors.
It was not until Sunday that the increasingly dangerous nature of the problems at Daiichi became clear. But even on Saturday, with Reactor No. 1 there having suffered a radiation leak and an explosion, James M. Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the nuclear industry would be shaken.
While Japan may try to point to the safety of its newer facilities, concerns may run too deep, he said. Decades ago, after the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents, Mr. Acton said, the nuclear industry tried to argue that newer reactors incorporated much better safety features. “That made very little difference to the public,” he said. Japan's status as the only target of nuclear attack, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, adds to the public's sensitivity.
Benjamin Leyre, a utilities industry analyst with Exane BNP Paribas in Paris, also speaking on Saturday, said politicians in Europe and elsewhere would almost certainly come under increased pressure to revisit safety measures.
“What is likely to come will depend a lot on how transparent the regulators in Japan are,” Mr. Leyre said. “There will be a lot of focus on whether people feel confident that they know everything and that the truth is being put in front of them.”
Over the years, Japanese plant operators, along with friendly government officials, have sometimes hidden episodes at plants from a public increasingly uneasy with nuclear power.
In 2007, an earthquake in northwestern Japan caused a fire and minor radiation leaks at the world's largest nuclear plant, in Kashiwazaki City. An ensuing investigation found that the operator, Tokyo Electric, had unknowingly built the facility directly on top of an active seismic fault. A series of fires inside the plant after the earthquake deepened the public's fear. But Tokyo Electric said it upgraded the facility to withstand stronger tremors and reopened it in 2009.
Last year, another reactor with a troubled history was allowed to reopen, 14 years after a fire shut it down. The operator of that plant, the Monju Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, located along the coast about 220 miles west of Tokyo, tried to cover up the extent of the fire by releasing altered video after an accident in 1995.
In the hours after the blast at Reactor No. 1, nuclear advocates argued that Daiichi's problems were singular in many ways and stemmed from a natural disaster on a scale never before experienced in Japan. They pointed out that the excavation of fossil fuels has its own history of catastrophic accidents, including coal mine collapses and the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Some also said there might have been missteps in handling Reactor No. 1. A quick alternative source of water for cooling the destabilising core should have been immediately available, said Nils J. Diaz, a nuclear engineer who led the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2003 to 2006 and had visited the Daiichi plant.
Mr. Diaz suggested that the Japanese might have acted too slowly to prevent overheating, including procedures that might have required the venting of small amounts of steam and radiation, rather than risk a wholesale meltdown. Fear among Japanese regulators over public reaction to such small releases may have delayed plant operators from acting as quickly as they might have, he said.
“They would rather wait and do things in a perfect manner instead of doing it as good as it needs to be now,” Mr. Diaz said. “And this search for perfection has often led to people sometimes hiding things or waiting too long to do things.”
With virtually no natural resources, Japan has considered nuclear power as an alternative to oil and other fossil fuels since the 1960s. It has regarded its expertise in nuclear power as a way to cut down on its emission of greenhouse gases and to capture energy-hungry markets in Asia.
Japan is one of the world's top consumers of nuclear energy. The country's 17 nuclear plants boasting 55 reactors have provided about 30 per cent of its electricity needs.
To make plants resistant to earthquakes, operators are required to build them on bedrock to minimise shaking and to raise anti-tsunami seawalls for plants along the coast. But the government gives power companies wide discretion in deciding whether a site is safe.
In the case of Saturday's blast, experts said that problem was avoidable. Mr. Diaz said that a comprehensive nuclear power plant safety programme developed in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks would have prevented a similar accident at any of the nation's nuclear facilities. — New York Times News Service