'Suicide squad' sent to deal with reactor

 

JAPAN EARTHQUAKE:JAPAN IS using army helicopters and police water cannons operated by what the media calls “suicide squads” in a frantic attempt to cool overheating fuel rods at a stricken nuclear plant.

Operations were hampered yesterday by dangerously high radioactivity around the Fukushima Daiichi complex, which forced the authorities to evacuate the heavily protected workers periodically throughout the day.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) admitted last night that the tactics had failed to cut radiation levels, which were about 3,600 microseivert per hour – almost four times the exposure considered safe in a year.

Tepco has been sending a rotating team of about 180 workers into the plant to prevent more contamination leaking from several of its six reactors, after a series of explosions tore away the buildings housing them.

The cores of at least three reactors are believed to have partially melted since diesel-fuelled cooling systems were knocked out by last Friday’s huge earthquake and tsunami.

Fuel pods in at least two reactors, 3 and 4, are thought to be dangerously short of water, meaning they are overheating and leaking radioactivity.

A team from the United States’ Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned yesterday that the cooling pond for the most troubled reactor – No 4 – is completely dry, exposing fuel rods inside to air and increasing the risk of overheating. Tepco has refused to rule out the possibility of “re-criticality” – a nuclear fission chain reaction.

The crisis at the plant’s six reactors forced the government last night to warn that a Tokyo-wide blackout could occur following a surge in energy demand caused by the use of heaters amid unseasonably cold weather.

Thousands of businesses in the capital are sending workers home to try and save power. Train services have been cut and convenience and department stores are closing early.

Live television pictures were screened throughout the day showing army Chinook helicopters dumping tonnes of water on to the Fukushima plant.

State broadcaster NHK said the plan had to be abandoned because the pilots were heavily exposed to gamma rays from the crippled complex.

Riot police were also deployed yesterday with water canon to spray through holes in the No 3 reactor building. The Sankei newspaper dubbed the police team “kesshitai”, meaning a “unit that expects to die”.

Growing concern about the status of the plant and its cargo of potentially lethal radiation has sparked a series of stark warnings from embassies in the country.

France has advised its citizens to leave Tokyo. Britain, Ireland and many other countries have recommended that their nationals reconsider any travel plans to Tokyo.

The US state department has chartered planes to fly hundreds of family members of military and government personnel well away from the complex. Temple University’s Japan campus announced yesterday it was evacuating 200 students from the capital because of radiation fears.

The ongoing crisis has forced two Japanese companies to halt plans to build new nuclear complexes.

Tepco, operator of the stricken Fukushima complex, announced yesterday it had suspended the construction of a 1,380-megawatt complex, the country’s largest, in Aomori prefecture.

Another huge MOX (mixed-oxide) plant in the same prefecture was shelved yesterday, three years into construction. China also said yesterday it would not approve any new plants.

The desperate fight to prevent nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima has overshadowed the plight of almost half a million people sheltering in refugee centres in the northeast of the country.

Snow and freezing weather has hampered the delivery of relief to the worst affected areas in Miyagi, Fukushima and Iwate prefectures.

Fukushima’s prefectural governor, Yuhei Sato, said this week frustration at the lack of hot food, medicine and petrol had reached “boiling point.”