Japan hikes n-plant alert level, IAEA calls it extremely serious (Evening Lead)

March 18th, 2011 - 7:09 pm ICT by IANS  

Tokyo, March 18 (IANS) Fire trucks sprayed jets of water on the overheating Fukushima nuclear power plant Friday as Japan’s nuclear safety agency raised the crisis rating to level 5, defining it as an “accident with wider consequences”. IAEA chief called it an “extremely serious” crisis.

Six army vehicles drove up to the stricken nuclear plant that was extensively damaged in the March 11 earthquake that spawned a massive tsunami after dumping sea water from helicopters failed to have the desired effect.

The vehicles sprayed 50 tonnes of water on the fuel storage pool at reactor No.3, after which steam was seen rising from the damaged building, an indication that the water was reaching the overheating fuel rods, DPA reported citing state broadcaster NHK.

In a message sent to the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency Friday upgraded the rating of events at the plant to level 5 on the international 7-step scale, defining it as an “accident with wider consequences”.

The previous rating submitted to the IAEA was level 4 - an “accident with local consequences”.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said hourly radiation at No.1 reactor stood at 279.4 microsievert at 5 a.m. Friday, down from 309 microsievert at the beginning of the crisis and 292 microsievert around the time when helicopters poured water Thursday.

There has been global concern over the crisis at the Fukushima plant, where explosions have taken place at three reactors while a fire engulfed a fourth one.

The storage pools at the power plant lost their cooling function after the quake.

As the crisis deepened, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano arrived in Japan and met Prime Minister Naoto Kan Friday to discuss the issue.

Amano Friday urged Japan to provide more information on its “extremely serious” crisis, as the battle to regain control of a failing power plant in northern Japan enters a second week.

The UN nuclear watchdog chief said that the central government needs to make its information regarding the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, 240 km north of Tokyo, more readily available to them and the broader international community, Xinhua reported.

“There is the opinion in the international community that more detailed information is needed,” Amano was quoted as telling the Japanese leader.

Upon his arrival in Tokyo, Amano told reporters: “This is not something that just Japan should deal with, and people of the entire world should cooperate with Japan and the people in the disaster areas.”

An IAEA team of four nuclear experts would carry out surveys in Tokyo and later would be dispatched to Fukushima to monitor radiation around the plant, Amano was quoted as saying by Kyodo news agency.

The government has evacuated residents from areas within a 20-km radius from the Fukushima plant and advised those within a 30-km radius to stay indoors. A no-fly zone has been imposed within 30 km of the plant.

Personnel attempting to cool down Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear plant have been dubbed a “suicide squad”, their families accepting their fate like a death sentence.

The Sankei Shimbun newspaper called the police team “Kesshitai” - meaning a “unit that expects to die”, according to Britain’s The Independent.

Experts have been working round the clock to cool the reactors and giant helicopters have been used to dump water over them. Twenty people have been confirmed to have suffered from radiation exposure.

A worker’s daughter told The Sun: “My father says he has accepted his fate much like a death sentence.”

There are about 180 personnel working round the clock to cool the plant. Working in rotating teams of 50, they enter the radiation hotspots for only 15 minutes at a time to limit their exposure.

Another worker sent a message to his wife that said: “Please continue to live well, I cannot be home for a while.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference that temperatures in reactors No.5 and No.6 were also rising gradually, but did not pose an immediate danger. If necessary, they would also be doused with water, he said.

Radiation levels around reactor No.3 fell slightly Thursday after it was sprayed by the military firefighters, the nuclear safety commission said Friday.

The plant’s operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was working Friday to install a new power line to restore electricity to the complex. The new line could enable pumps to send water to the reactors and pools to keep them cool.

The toll in the quake that shook the country has been steadily mounting with the National Police Agency Friday saying that 6,405 people have been confirmed dead, while at least 10,259 were still unaccounted for.

Around 2,000 bodies were identified Thursday in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, of which 870 were returned to their families, Xinhua reported.

The number of damaged buildings has crossed 75,000, the police agency said.

Japanese broadcaster NHK said around 380,000 evacuees were living in shelters.

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