Choppers dump water over Japan n-plant, 20 people irradiated (Night Lead)

March 17th, 2011 - 10:01 pm ICT by IANS  

Tokyo, March 17 (IANS) Japan Thursday scrambled to prevent a nuclear meltdown as army helicopters poured sea water on the over-heating Fukushima plant that was severly damaged in last week’s quake and tsunami. Twenty people were confirmed to have suffered from radiation exposure.

Four giant helicopters dumped tonnes of water on the nuclear power plant, where there have been explosions at three reactors while a blaze engulfed a fourth reactor.

Reactor No. 3 and 4 were targeted in a water dumping operation that began at 9.48 a.m. with helicopters flying over the stricken plant, which has now become the centre of a global concern.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant was badly damaged in last Friday’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake that triggered a massive tsunami. Since then technicians have been trying to cool the reactor core, without much success.

The water dumping operation was launched after the plant operator - the Tokyo Electric Power Co. - failed in its efforts, Xinhua reported.

Video footage showed the attempts were not very successful, with most of the water falling outside the complex, BBC reported.

On Wednesday, the helicopters - capable of carrying up to 7.5 tonnes of water each - were forced to abort a similar operation amid concerns over high radiation levels.

A meltdown occurs when nuclear fuel rods cannot be cooled and the core melts. The fuel can spill out of the containment unit shield and spread radioactivity through air and water, which can cause immediate and long-term health problems.

A police unit also used a water cannon truck to cool down a spent fuel rod pool at the No. 4 reactor at the quake-hit power plant.

The nuclear plant was rocked by a hydrogen explosion Tuesday and by a fire Wednesday, raising concerns that the fuel rods will melt and release radiation.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukio Amano, was travelling to Japan to gather more information.

At least 23 nuclear and rescue workers have been injured and 20 have received high radiation doses so far at the plant, the IAEA said Thursday.

According to DPA, explosions at the three reactor units caused 15 casualties.

The IAEA did not say whether any of the 23 injuries was due to radiation.

The catastrophic quake and ensuing tsunami have left 5,178 people dead. A total of 8,606 people were still unaccounted for till Thursday morning, Japan’s National Police Agency said.

Residents painted a bleak picture of the still-unfolding crises, but remained hopeful that they will pull through.

In the hardest-hit areas, thousands of citizens have found comfort in daily routine - lining up for lunch, folding and unfolding what few belongings they had, CNN said.

In Tokyo, long queues of foreigners waited outside the immigration office for permits to temporarily leave the capital.

In areas badly hit by the tsunami, the chilly winter weather has added to the misery of survivors. Officials in Fukushima prefecture said evacuation centres lack basic necessities, including sufficient hot food.

About 450,000 people are staying in temporary shelters, many sleeping on the floors.

According to RIA Novosti, Russian rescuers intended to search a 100 sq km area for survivors around the disaster-struck Japanese city of Sendai late Thursday, the head of the search team said.

Russia has sent a total of 165 rescuers to Japan. They have all been stationed in Sendai together with rescue teams from other countries.

“Rescuers are currently working near a fishing port and an airport in a 100 sq km area in the city of Ishinomaki, four km to the north of Sendai,” rescue worker Andrei Legoshin said. “Unfortunately, we have not yet found any survivors.”

The escalating crisis due to leakage of radioactive materials from the Fukushima plant has raised health concerns among some Chinese, increasing sales of iodine tablets, the China Daily reported.

Manufacturers of potassium iodine in the US and Sweden have said they do not have any more supplies. The health risk is due to radioactive iodine that can lead to thyroid cancer, a media report said, adding the tablet floods the thyroid with stable iodine so as to prevent it from absorbing the radioactive version.

The devastating earthquake may affect auto production at two joint ventures in China due to interruption in imports of vehicle parts. The two affected vehicle plants are Dongfeng Nissan and Dongfeng Honda in Hubei province, Xinhua reported.

Though the two plants remain operational, their managements fear production and sales might be affected starting April.

Dongfeng Honda said its parts inventory was enough to sustain production for the rest of this month, but supply of parts for April was uncertain.

Japanese stocks fell sharply in Thursday morning trading as the yen surged against major currencies amid growing fears of a potential meltdown at the nuclear plant.

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