Japan in ‘Maximum Alert’ as It Struggles to Contain Nuclear Crisis

BY News Desk  March 29, 2011 at 9:17 AM EDT

Photo by Tokyo Electric Power Company

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said his government was “in a state of maximum alert” as the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant continues to spread, with radioactive contamination in the air, soil and water near the plant. Crews used sandbags to prevent radioactive water from the plant from leaking into the Pacific Ocean, and plutonium found in some soil indicates a possible melting of one of the plant’s reactors. If a reactor were to completely melt down, massive amounts of radioactive material would be released.

Work on the plant has slowed with the presence of radioactive water in the reactors, sending several workers to the hospital with burns last week. Efforts to restore the plant’s cooling system, damaged in the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, have been unsuccessful thus far, leaving crews scrambling to cool the reactors with water. The use of massive amounts of water could be contributing to leakage into tunnels in the area.

Workers at the plant have been exposed to high levels of radiation. “On the ground at the nuclear power plant, the workers are working under very dangerous and very hard conditions,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said, adding, “I feel a great deal of respect for them.”

Concerns about radiation in produce from the area has led to a ban on certain vegetables grown in the surrounding prefecture.

The crisis has been described as Japan’s worst since the devastation of World War II. The official death toll from the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami stands at more than 11,000. But with 18,000 still missing, that number is expected to rise as recovery workers sift through the rubble.

Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless and remain in shelters. The threat of a nuclear meltdown has compounded the effects of the natural disasters that hit the country and will inflict upwards of $300 billion in damage to Japan’s economy, according to current estimates.

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