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More Uncertainty at Hobbled Japan Nuclear Plant Despite Reassurances

March 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
At the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant, workers are enlisting military helicopters and fire trucks in the ongoing battle to cool overheated reactors. Meanwhile, a growing number of Japanese and foreigners are fleeing from the radiation threat. Tom Clarke, Sarah Smith and Carl Dinnen of Independent Television News report.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Japanese engineers marshaled all their remaining tools today in the week-long struggle to prevent a full-blown nuclear disaster.

And in Washington, President Obama sought to reassure Americans about the potential for radiation to drift over the U.S.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories in the Pacific. That is the judgment of our Nuclear Regulatory Commission and many other experts.

Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health experts do not recommend that people in the United States take precautionary measures beyond staying informed.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president also made an unannounced visit to the Japanese Embassy in Washington. He signed a condolence book for the thousands of dead and missing. And he said he has ordered a complete safety review of all 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S.

Meanwhile, American officials kept a watchful eye on the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant 140 miles north of Tokyo, heavily damaged after losing its cooling system in last week’s earthquake and tsunami. A spokesman for the plant’s owner said today, we are doing all we can as we pray for the situation to improve.

We have a series of reports from Independent Television News, beginning with Tom Clarke on the nuclear crisis.

TOM CLARKE: Filmed yesterday through a shaky lens, from the dubious safety of a military helicopter, this is the closest glimpse yet of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.

No one is visible outside. Given the levels of radiation, few people would want to be, around the wrecked reactors, obvious damage to other buildings caught in the blast. This is the remains of reactor number three. The core shielding is believed to be cracked. Radioactive steam is clearly escaping from within.

But it’s the situation obscured by the rubble of building number four that’s now cause for international concern. This thick vapor is thought to be rising from a pool where 100 tons of nuclear fuel is stored. Two nearby are also heating up. The storage pool contains all the nuclear fuel rods recently removed from the reactor.

Normally, at least five meters of cool water is kept above the rods to prevent them overheating and shield workers from their radioactivity. Reports suggest that pool is now completely dry. And that’s not good. Radiation levels around the pool will now be fatally high. No one can enter the area. And exposed to the air, the fuel rods will get dangerously hot.

If engineers can’t cover the rods with water soon, the worst-case scenario is that they catch fire and burn.

ANDREW SHERRY, nuclear scientist: That would generate hydrogen with the oxidation reaction, and that may lead to more fires and explosions. And I think that’s where the area of focus is now.

TOM CLARKE: But as Chinooks dumped water on the reactors from above, official confusion over the true status of that storage pool, engineers at the plant maintaining there may still be water, but that it was too radioactive to check — an American drone flying over today concluding it was now empty and the rods extremely dangerous.

This evening, teams of firefighters assembled near the plants to begin trying to pump water in from trucks. If there’s one piece of good news, it’s that levels of radiation, if they are indeed accurate, haven’t risen since yesterday. The levels vary depending on distance from the site. A person standing near building number four would experience 400,000 microsieverts in just one hour. That’s nearly twice the maximum annual dose for emergency crews.

Outside the plant, the level is 100 times less, but still dangerous. Some 45 miles away, in Fukushima City, it drops to 170. And, in Tokyo, 140 miles away, the level is just four-hundredths of a microsievert per hour. By comparison, that’s just one-five-hundredth of the dose you get from a chest X-ray.

But, despite reassurances, new crises have emerged daily from Fukushima. Six days since the emergency began, there is as much uncertainty about the danger as there was at the start.

JUDY WOODRUFF: American and Japanese officials have given sharply differing assessments of the nuclear situation. And the U.S. and other nations have now ordered chartered flights to get their citizens out of Japan.

Sarah Smith reports on the growing exodus of foreigners and Japanese.

SARAH SMITH: A rush hour train in Tokyo should be absolutely packed, but, after the exodus, the city feels deserted.

Instead, it’s the inter-city bullet trains that are taking the strain, moving tens of thousands of people to the south, where they think it’s safe. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of radiation, so families are especially keen to get out.

What was it that finally made you think it was time to leave Tokyo?

MAN (through translator): In the last two days, the government has looked more and more desperate. We’re more worried for the children than ourselves, so we decided to leave.

SARAH SMITH: Driving through streets this empty feels very strange in a city that’s usually so crowded.

People here don’t believe their own prime minister anymore. How can he tell them Japan is safe, when America joins a growing list of countries starting to extract its citizens?

On Channel 4 News last night, the prime minister’s spokesman said it was unnecessary.

NORIYUKI SHIKATA, spokesman for Japanese prime minister: It’s difficult for us to understand the reason behind that kind of behavior.

SARAH SMITH: People are flooding into places, like Kyoto, trying to escape from a threat that they cannot see, one that they don’t know for sure really exists, but one that is so frightening, they don’t dare take the risk.

Tsumiko Kan quickly packed up and moved into a Kyoto hotel. From a generation who remember the atomic bomb attacks on Japan, she has a particular fear of radiation.

TSUMIKO KAN (through translator): This time, so many lives were lost in the tsunami, but it was instant. With the radiation, you suffer forever. So, radiation is more frightening.

SARAH SMITH: Long queues for petrol stop people heading south as fast as they would like, but anyone who really believes that they are in danger in Tokyo will do what it takes to get away.

JEFFREY BROWN: More than 450,000 Japanese remained in emergency shelters today, with supplies running short. And there were new accounts of harrowing escapes from the tsunami.

Carl Dinnen reports on one such story filmed by a Japanese TV crew.

MAN (through translator): The tsunami — the tsunami is coming.

CARL DINNEN: These are the decisions that keep you alive. Stay in the car or run for it? They run, telling the driver to do the same.

MAN (through translator): Run away! Run away!

CARL DINNEN: Keep running or find shelter? They find a building, the water is pooling at their feet now.

Look at the height of that white wall. Very soon, the water will reach the top of it. The canopy over the gate will become a bridge.

MAN (through translator): It’s getting dangerous. Get away, quick!

CARL DINNEN: As they climb the stairs, the tsunami bursts through the corridor. But not everyone made shelter. There’s a woman on the wall, a man in a tree, and standing on a car roof, a father clutching his two young children. Someone finds a fire hose. It becomes a rope.

MAN (through translator): There’s an aftershock. Take your time.

MAN (through translator): I thought I was dying.

CARL DINNEN: As snow falls, the man from the tree makes it in. As dusk falls, a human chain is formed, and reaches the children.

Despite the aftershocks, despite the snow, they pass the children from person to person across the tops of shipping containers.