Zao, Japan Japanese military helicopters dumped loads of seawater onto a stricken nuclear reactor today, trying to avoid full meltdowns as plant operators said they were close to finishing a new power line that could restore cooling systems and ease the crisis.
U.S. officials in Washington, meanwhile, warned that the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in northeastern Japan may be on the verge of spewing more radioactive material because water was gone from a storage pool that keeps spent nuclear fuel rods from overheating.
The troubles at several of the plant’s reactors were set off when last week’s earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and ruined backup generators needed for their cooling systems, adding a major nuclear crisis for Japan as it dealt with twin natural disasters that killed more than 10,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
A Japanese military CH-47 Chinook helicopter began dumping seawater on the damaged reactor of Unit 3 at the Fukushima complex at 9:48 a.m., said defense ministry spokeswoman Kazumi Toyama. The aircraft dumped at least four loads on the reactor, though much of the water appeared to be dispersed in the wind.
At least a dozen more loads were planned in the 40 minutes that each crew can operate before switching to limit radiation exposure, the ministry said.
The dumping was intended both to help cool the reactor and to replenish water in a pool holding spent fuel rods, Toyama said. The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said earlier that the pool was nearly empty, which might cause the rods to overheat.
The comments from U.S. officials indicated there were similar problems at another unit of the Dai-ichi complex.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said at a congressional hearing in Washington that all the water was gone from a separate spent fuel pool at the plant’s Unit 4. Japanese officials expressed similar worries about that unit, but that it was impossible to be sure of its status.
Emergency workers were forced to retreat from the plant Wednesday when radiation levels soared, losing precious time. They resumed work after radiation levels dropped, but much of the monitoring equipment in the plant is inoperable, complicating efforts to assess the situation.
“We are afraid that the water level at unit 4 is the lowest,” said Hikaru Kuroda, facilities management official at Tokyo Electric Power Co. But he added, “Because we cannot get near it, the only way to monitor the situation is visually from far away.”
The storage pools need a constant source of cooling water. Even when removed from reactors, the rods retain radioactivity and must be cooled for months, possibly longer, to prevent them from posing a threat of meltdown.
Japanese officials raised hopes of easing the crisis earlier today, saying that they may be close to bringing power back to the plant and restoring the reactors’ cooling systems.
The new power line would revive electric-powered pumps, allowing the company to control the rising temperatures and pressure that have led to at least partial meltdowns in three reactors. The company is also trying to repair its existing disabled power line.