Workers take first steps in bid to return power at Fukushima plant
Japanese government concedes its response to crisis was too slow
EXHAUSTED engineers attached a power cable to the outside of Japan's tsunami-crippled nuclear plant yesterday. The operation raised hopes that it may be possible to restart the pumping of water into the plant's stricken reactors this weekend and cool down its overheated fuel rods before there are more fires and explosions.
"We have connected the external transmission line with the receiving point of the plant and confirmed that electricity can be supplied," said a spokesman for the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company.
However, officials said further cabling would have to be completed before they made an attempt to restart the water pumps at the Fukushima plant, 150 miles north of Tokyo.
It was also reported that health workers had detected radiation levels above safety limits in milk and spinach from farms in Fukushima and in neighbouring Ibaraki, although it was claimed they represented no risk to human health. Officials have asked people living near the plant to follow basic safety advice when going outside: drive, don't walk; wear a mask; wear long sleeves; don't go out in the rain.
Radiation levels in Tokyo were also said to be within safe limits. Nevertheless, the city has seen an exodus of tourists, expatriates and many Japanese, who fear a blast of radioactive material from Fukushima.
At the nuclear plant yesterday, firefighters continued to spray water to cool the dangerously overheated fuel rods in order to keep cores in reactors from overheating and melting. The UN's atomic agency said yesterday that conditions at the plant remained grave but were not deteriorating badly, following Japan's decision on Friday to raise the severity rating of the nuclear crisis from level four to level five on the seven-level international scale. It put the Fukushima fires on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. The explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 -- which sent a plume of radioactive material into the skies 25 years ago -- is the only incident to have reached level seven
Plant workers, emergency services personnel and scientists have been battling for the past week to restore the pumping of water to the Fukushima nuclear plant and to prevent a meltdown at one of the reactors.
A team of about 300 workers -- wearing masks, goggles and protective suits sealed with duct tape and known as the Fukushima 50 because they work in shifts of 50-strong groups -- have captured the attention of the Japanese who have taken heart from the toil inside the wrecked atom plant. "My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing," said Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
Little is known about this band of heroes, except for the few whose relatives have spoken to the media. One woman said that her father, who had worked for an electricity company for 40 years and who was due to retire in September, had volunteered. "I feel it's my mission to help," he told his daughter.
On Wednesday, the government raised the cumulative legal limit of radiation that the Fukushima workers could be exposed to from 100 to 250 millisieverts. The pilots of the helicopters used to "water-bomb" the plant have been restricted to missions lasting less than 40 minutes.
Nevertheless, the workers have not only managed to link a power cable to one of the plant's reactors, No 2, but they have also connected generators to the No 5 and No 6 reactors, which have so far not suffered serious damage.
"If they are successful in getting the cooling infrastructure up and running, that will be a significant step forward in establishing stability," said Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at US-based FocalPoint Consulting Group.
However, the government has conceded that it was too slow in dealing with the crisis at Fukushima. Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said that "in hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information, and provided it faster".
The fires at Fukushima have also triggered serious criticism of the plant's design. The decision to place storage tanks close to reactors has been pinpointed as a key design error. When those reactors caught fire, they quickly triggered reactions in the storage tanks which themselves caught fire, and so the fires spread.
"European leaders must take note of the growing nuclear crisis in Japan, and act now," said Patricia Lorenz, nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe. "Europe needs a phase-out plan for nuclear, and must open the way for safe solutions to climate change and energy security."
Last week, the German government suspended its approval process for new nuclear construction projects. More significantly, China -- the world's leader in nuclear expansion, with 28 plants under construction -- followed suit.
Whether these suspensions will last long is a different matter. Much depends on the success of the Fukushima 50 and their bid to complete a power link between the stricken plant and the outside world. Failure would certainly do little for the reputation of nuclear power.