Yamagata, Japan — Smoke billowed from a building at Japan’s crippled nuclear power plant today as emergency crews worked to reconnect electricity to cooling systems and spray more water on overheating nuclear fuel at the tsunami-ravaged facility.
Four of the troubled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant’s six reactor units have seen fires, explosions or partial meltdowns in the week since the tsunami. While the reactor cores where energy is generated are a concern, water in the pools used to store used nuclear fuel are also major worries. Water in at least one fuel pool — in the complex’s Unit 3 — is believed to be dangerously low, exposing the stored fuel rods. Without enough water, the rods may heat further and spew out radiation.
“We see it as an extremely serious accident,” Yukiya Amano, the head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters today just after arriving in Tokyo. “This is not something that just Japan should deal with, and people of the entire world should cooperate with Japan and the people in the disaster areas.”
Frantic efforts were made Thursday to douse a number of units with water, and authorities were preparing to repeat many of those efforts.
Today’s smoke came from the complex’s Unit 2, and its cause was not known, the nuclear safety agency said. An explosion had hit the building on Tuesday, possibly damaging a crucial cooling chamber that sits below the reactor core.
Last week’s 9.0 quake and tsunami in Japan’s northeast set off the nuclear problems by knocking out power to cooling systems at the reactors. The unfolding crises have led to power shortages in Japan, forced auto and other factories to close, sending shockwaves through global manufacturing and trade, and triggered a plunge in Japanese stock prices.
Low levels of radiation have been detected well beyond Tokyo, which is 140 miles south of the plant, but hazardous levels have been limited to the plant itself. Still, the crisis has forced thousands to evacuate and drained Tokyo’s normally vibrant streets of life, its residents either leaving town or holing up in their homes.
“I feel a sense of dread,” said Yukiko Morioka, 63, who has seen business dry up at her lottery ticket booth in Tokyo. “I’m not an expert, so it’s difficult to understand what’s going on. That makes it scarier.”
A senior official with the U.N. nuclear agency said Thursday there had been “no significant worsening” at the nuclear plant but that the situation remained “very serious.” Graham Andrew told reporters in Vienna that nuclear fuel rods in two reactors were only about half covered with water, and they were also not completely submerged in a third.
Edano said today that Tokyo is asking the U.S. government for help and that the two are discussing the specifics.
“We are coordinating with the U.S. government as to what the U.S. can provide and what people really need,” Edano said.
At times, the two close allies have offered starkly differing assessments over the dangers at Fukushima. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jazcko said Thursday that it could take days and “possibly weeks” to get the complex under control. He defended the U.S. decision to recommend a 50-mile evacuation zone for its citizens, wider than the 30-mile band Japan has ordered.
Crucial to the effort to regain control over the Fukushima plant is laying a new power line to the plant, allowing operators to restore cooling systems. The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., missed a deadline late Thursday but said today that workers hoped to complete the effort in 10 to 15 hours, said nuclear safety agency spokesman Minoru Ohgoda.
But the utility is not sure the cooling systems will still function. If they don’t, electricity won’t help.
The official death toll from the disasters stood at 6,405 as of this morning, with 10,259 missing, the national police agency said.