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Winds, fluctuating radiation levels hamper efforts to control Japan nuclear plant

There is no sign of progress as of early Friday local time. The official death toll rises to 5,692, with 9,522 unaccounted for and feared dead, authorities say.

March 17, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Laura King and Kenji Hall, Los Angeles Times
  • Authorities hoped to augment improvised water-spraying tactics on the power plant 150 miles north of Tokyo, above, later Friday or early Saturday with power from a makeshift cable to try to restart pumps that would help cool some of the nuclear equipment.
Authorities hoped to augment improvised water-spraying tactics on the… (Reuters )

Reporting from Tokyo and Kesennuma, Japan — There was no obvious sign of progress in the battle to take control of the dangerously stricken Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant early Friday, as blustery winds and fluctuating radiation levels hampered efforts to douse hot nuclear equipment with water from helicopters and firetrucks.

"We know that the damage to the nuclear reactors in Fukushima Daiichi plant poses a substantial risk to people who are nearby," President Obama said Thursday.

The risk was that hot nuclear reactors and spent-fuel pools would heat up without water to cool them down. An uncontrolled heat-up of the nuclear equipment could result in dangerous bursts of radiation into the atmosphere, which is why officials have evacuated the area closest to the power plant.

Photos: Crisis continues in Japan

With some devastated stretches of coastline still untouched by recovery teams, the official toll of dead and missing in last Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami topped 15,000, as hundreds of thousands of stranded survivors coped with punishing hardships brought on by subfreezing temperatures and shortages of fuel, food and other basic necessities.

Post-quake deaths, particularly among the frail, ill and elderly, were on the rise in sometimes-primitive shelters, some of which lacked heat even as temperatures fell to 21 degrees Fahrenheit overnight.

As of Friday, the official death toll stood at 5,692, according to the National Police Agency, and 9,522 were unaccounted for and feared dead.

Authorities hoped to augment improvised water-spraying tactics on the power plant 150 miles north of Tokyo later Friday or early Saturday with power from a makeshift cable to try to restart pumps that would help cool some of the nuclear equipment.

On Thursday, authorities desperately tried to spray water on the facility by helicopter, but only four loads, totaling about 30 tons, were tossed on the plant before high radiation levels forced them to stop. Most of the water missed the reactors.

The bursts of radiation at the plant also meant that workers will have to be quickly rotated out, and some could rapidly reach their annual exposure limit to radiation. Disaster officials faced a grim choice of scaling back containment efforts or allow workers to face radiation levels that could increase their risk for cancer.

The exodus of foreigners from Japan gathered momentum, with several governments advising their nationals to not only leave the quake zone but also depart from the capital.

In Washington, the State Department reported the first voluntary evacuation flight of U.S. citizens from Japan to Taipei, wire services reported. American officials authorized the voluntary departures of family members and dependents of U.S. government personnel from northeastern Japan.

As many Japanese sought refuge within their homeland, they put more distance between themselves and the crippled nuclear complex, packing aboard trains headed south. The national nightmare is one that envisions a full-scale meltdown at the reactors in Fukushima prefecture, although prevailing winds would probably disperse much of a massive radiation release over the Pacific Ocean.

Obama has assured Americans that the radiation did not pose a risk to U.S. territory.

The Japanese head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency was expected to arrive in Japan on Friday, accompanied by international experts. The agency's Graham Andrew said there had been "no significant worsening" of the situation, but neither was any major progress being reported.

The crisis was roiling financial markets worldwide, and officials from the world's wealthiest economies planned talks Friday aimed at calming the situation.

Estimates of quake losses could run to $200 billion.

Electricity supplies have become a worrying element of the multipronged crisis. A massive threatened blackout was averted Thursday, but rolling power cuts and voluntary conservation areas are still leaving a shortfall. In the quake zone, Japanese officials said tens of thousands were still without power in unseasonably cold weather. An additional 1.6 million households still do not have running water.

The shortage of gasoline has forced businesses far from the disaster zone to close down and has slowed deliveries of urgently needed humanitarian aid to earthquake and tsunami victims. Hospitals reported running low on medicine.

As snow fell over Sendai, one of the quake zone's largest cities, people under umbrellas waited in long lines that snaked around blocks to enter the few supermarkets that were open. Gas lines stretched more than a mile.

"This is the biggest disaster since World War II, and they are totally paralyzed,'' said Kit Miyamoto, a Japanese American structural engineer who was inspecting damage in tsunami-ravaged Kesennuma.

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