Cooling Efforts Continue, IAEA Official Says Situation Serious But Stable

BY News Desk  March 17, 2011 at 3:55 PM EST

5:45 p.m. ET | Engineers at the Fukushima Dai-ich plant have successfully connected a power cable to the facility, providing a way to restore the pumps that operate the reactors’ cooling systems. Backup generators had proven insufficient after Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake.

Gregory Jazcko, head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the process of successfully cooling the reactors could take “weeks,” amid fears that pools near the rods are drying and could trigger the release of more radiation. The area near the plant has seen dangerous spikes in radiation levels in recent days, triggering fear that other parts of the country could be at risk.

3:45 p.m. ET | President Obama addressed the crisis in Japan Thursday in a speech from the South Lawn of the White House, reassuring Americans that nuclear facilities in the U.S. were secure and that there is currently no risk of potent radiation wafting across the Pacific.

“We are bringing all available resources to bear to closely monitor situation and protect Americans who may be in harm’s way…the damage to the nuclear reactors in Fukushima Dai-ichi plant poses substantial risk to people nearby,” he said, adding that the 50-mile evacuation radius was “based on careful scientific evaluation and the guidelines we would use to keep our citizens safe.”

The president also sought to reassure Americans who are jittery about the spread of radioactivity. “We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States,” including Hawaii and the West coast, Mr. Obama said, citing the assessment of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We will continue to keep the American people fully update because I believe you must know what I know as president.”

Despite insisting that nuclear plants in the U.S. have been examined, he said “we have a responsibility to learn from this event” and that he has asked for a comprehensive nuclear review by NRC.

Mr. Obama said the government was actively sending relief supplies and flying support missions, encouraging concerned Americans to visit the U.S. Agency for International Development’s web site for ways to help.

“The American people have also opened up their hearts. Many have given generously,” he said. “As I told Prime Minister Kan last night … the Japanese people are not alone in this time of great trial and sorrow. Across the Pacific they will find a hand of support extended from the United States.”

The New York Times Lede blog points out this video from the Tokyo Electric Power Company, showing damage in the area of the plant.

3 p.m. ET | Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research spoke to NewsHour reporter/producer David Coles about the condition of the plant:

At the moment I think it is a level six, between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The radiation releases have been pretty significant, but from what we can tell, much less than Chernobyl. But there is potential for that if it gets out of control. They are trying desperately to get under control an unprecedented number of elements…There are a total of six reactors, each reactor has radioactive material that needs to be cooled, and each has a spent fuel pool that needs to be cooled.

2:45 p.m. ET | President Obama visited the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he wrote a note of condolence to the Japanese people. He made a brief statement afterward saying, “we are doing everything we can to stand by our great friend and ally, Japan, in this hour of need.”

1:45 p.m. ET | Graham Andrew, an official from the International Atomic Energy Agency said Thursday that the situation is “very serious” but added that it was not significantly worse than it was 24 hours ago. Despite indicating that conditions were stable, he acknowledged that the situation was unpredictable and could shift rapidly.

Yukiya Amano, head of the IAEA, is en route to Tokyo to meet with those involved in containing the crisis.

12:05 p.m. ET | Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu talks to the NewsHour about ‘uncertainties’ in radiation risk from Japan’s nuclear crisis.

11:10 a.m. ET | Military fire trucks have been added to the effort after helicopter spraying and the addition of water cannons were added in an attempt to adequately cool the smoldering reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Though there are four badly-damaged reactors, there were growing fears for the facility’s No. 3 reactor, the only one containing mixed oxide, which scientists say could create especially dangerous radioactive clouds. Less is known about the condition of the No. 4 reactor, which may have little or no water.

The plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, continued efforts to install a new power line to restore the cooling systems that were damaged in the quake. Some U.S. officials have criticized the company for not providing full and adequate information to the international community on the state of the crisis.

Water cannons and helicopters were added to the frantic cooling operations underway at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant Thursday in an effort to prevent it from overheating. Four of the six reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi have shown signs of a possible meltdown after Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami damaged the plant and caused its cooling systems to fail. Two Japanese military Chinook helicopters dumped water into nearly empty pools.

Though many have been evacuated from the area as radiation levels have reached as high as 300 times the normal amount, some 180 workers have stayed behind to contain the crisis, working in shifts of about 50 people at a time. Japan’s government has increased the legal levels of radiation allowed in order for them to remain, but they are likely being exposed to levels that can pose serious health risks.

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo advised American citizens living within 50 miles of the plant to evacuate; the Japanese government has enforced mandatory evacuations for residents in a 12-mile radius. The travel warnings and evacuation recommendations issued by the United States have exceeded those of the Japanese government, though the Obama administration has been careful not to criticize Japan’s less extensive precautions.

The advisory applies to some 600 people in the area, including military personnel and their families. Military personnel who may be aiding in relief work have been given anti-radiation pills as a precaution.

President Obama called Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Wednesday to discuss recovery efforts and reiterated his assurance that the United States will provide any needed assistance.

Gasoline shortages are compounding the logistical hurdles facing aid workers as they try to provide for the estimated 450,000 who remain in makeshift shelters. Though the official death toll stands at 5,300, more than 10,000 are believed to have perished in the disaster. Snow and freezing temperatures have added to the difficulties facing survivors.