Mounting Japan crisis sparks warnings to leave Tokyo

2011-03-17 09:02

Tokyo – Alarm over Japan’s nuclear crisis grew today as army helicopters water-bombed an overheating power plant and foreign governments urged citizens to leave Tokyo.

Airline tickets were scarce and firms hired private jets to evacuate staff as countries from the United States to Europe and Australia warned their citizens to get out of Tokyo.

The US chartered aircraft to take Americans out of the country, China moved thousands of its citizens to Tokyo for evacuation, and France assigned two government planes to pull its people out.

At the stricken plant itself, Chinook helicopters dumped tonnes of water in a desperate effort to cool reactors crippled by Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami, which pulverised the northeast coast and left countless thousands homeless and enduring bitterly cold conditions.

The official toll of the dead and missing now exceeds 14 650, police said, with the number of confirmed dead at 5 178 in the country’s biggest catastrophe since World War II.

As Japanese and international teams mounted a massive search and relief effort, reports from some battered coastal towns suggested the final toll could be far higher.

Millions have been left without water, electricity, fuel or enough food and hundreds of thousands more are homeless, the misery compounded by heavy snowfalls, freezing cold and wet conditions.

The tense nation also saw the stock market fall again today, closing down 1.44% on fears about the economic impact – concerns that have also seen global stocks drop.

The massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake shifted Japan more than two metres away from the neighbouring Korean peninsula, scientists said.

The helicopter operation at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant on the Pacific coast, some 250km northeast of Tokyo, aims to keep the fuel rods inside reactors and containment pools submerged under water.

The latest threat at the plant was the fuel-rod pools, which contain used fuel rods that have been withdrawn from reactors yet remain highly radioactive.

They are immersed in cooling water for many years until they shed enough heat to become manageable for storage.
Water in one of the pools was evaporating because of the rods’ heat, and temperatures were slowly rising in two other pools because coolant pumps were knocked out by the March 11 tsunami, experts say.

They warned that if the tanks run dry and leave the fuel rods exposed, the rods could melt or catch fire, creating potentially lethal levels of radiation.

At the same time, Japanese engineers were focused on restoring the power supply to the stricken power plant in an attempt to reactivate its cooling system.

“If the restoration work is completed, we will be able to activate various electric pumps and pour water into reactors and pools for spent nuclear fuel,” a spokesperson for Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) said.

US President Barack Obama offered to give Japan any support that it needs, in a telephone call with Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the Japanese leader’s spokesperson said.

But as crews battled to prevent an atomic disaster, more foreign governments urged their citizens to steer clear of quake-stricken northeast Japan and the capital Tokyo.

“If you’re in Tokyo or any of the affected prefectures, we are saying that you should depart,” said Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.

Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and New Zealand also advised nationals to leave or shun the northeast region.

Indian technology firms were helping employees to leave, with software firm L&T Infotech saying it had chartered a plane to take all 185 of its staff and their families out of Japan.

US officials warned nationals living within 80km of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant to evacuate or seek shelter.

The Japanese government has told people living up to 10km beyond a 20km exclusion zone around the plant to stay indoors. More than 200 000 people have already been evacuated from the zone.

The evacuation plans came against a background of mounting concern over the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe.

“The site is effectively out of control,” the European Union’s energy chief Guenther Oettinger told a European Parliament committee, a day after he said Japan was facing “apocalypse”.

France’s Nuclear Safety Authority said the disaster now equated to a six on the seven-point international scale for nuclear accidents, ranking the crisis second in gravity only to the level-seven Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the events in Japan “actually appear to be more serious” than the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, a partial reactor meltdown that led to small releases of radioactivity.

“To what extent we don’t really know now,” Chu said in Washington.

Gregory Jaczko, chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, warned there was no water left in the spent fuel pool of the plant’s number-four reactor, resulting in “extremely high” radiation levels.

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano said the situation was “very serious” as he prepared to fly out to see the damage for himself.

Japan’s chief government spokesperson Yukio Edano said radiation levels from the plant posed no immediate health threat outside the 20km exclusion zone despite slightly elevated levels detected in Tokyo over the past few days. 

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