Japan’s catastrophe resonates at economic, regulatory and personal levels

Video: There are signs of an economic recovery in Japan as the Nikkei rebounds and factories reopen. Meanwhile there are still concerns about radioactive materials in the food and water supply. (March 22)

TOKYO — Japan’s catastrophe is resonating around the planet.

As technicians continued to struggle Monday to control a smoke-belching nuclear power plant in Japan, workers at a General Motors engine-manufacturing facility in Buffalo learned that they would be laid off temporarily as the shortage of Japanese-made parts roils the U.S. auto industry.

Graphic

Watch how the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant unfolded.
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Watch how the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant unfolded.

Graphic

Track the status of the nuclear crisis in Japan.
Click Here to View Full Graphic Story

Track the status of the nuclear crisis in Japan.

In Rockville, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission opened hearings on the safety of the country’s 104 nuclear reactors, many of them long in the tooth and now undergoing a critical reexamination.

And in Richmond, a family mourned. The U.S. Embassy in Japan informed the parents of Taylor Anderson, a 24-year-old American who had been teaching at a school in Japan, that her body had been identified in tsunami-battered Miyagi prefecture. Anderson reportedly helped parents pick up their children after the earthquake before she rode her bicycle home.

“Fittingly, she was last seen helping parents safely reunite with their children following the earthquake, an act which illustrates her dedication to her students and to the Japanese people she served,” said Virginia Gov. Robert F. Mc­Don­nell (R).

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, will face five years of rebuilding from the disaster, which could cost the nation up to $235 billion, according to the World Bank. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina caused $81.2 billion in damage in 2005, according to a widely cited study by the National Hurricane Center. Last year, the costs of natural disasters soared to a worldwide total of $109 billion, three times the total in 2009, according to the United Nations.

What makes Japan’s crisis so anguishing is the nuclear emergency that drags on day after day despite the efforts of hundreds of workers who are putting themselves in the line of atomic fire at the quake-crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The situation there continues to be two steps forward and one step back.

Emergency workers lost precious hours Monday in their ongoing battle to get the six-reactor complex under control when smoke billowed from two of the reactor units. The first cloud was spotted just before 4 p.m. coming out of the building that houses the unit 3 reactor. It tapered off after two hours. But then another cloud rose 20 minutes later near the unit 2 reactor.

No one was hurt, and the incidents were not as alarming as three previous explosions that damaged buildings housing reactors. But radiation levels spiked briefly, and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. evacuated about 700 workers.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, spokesman for the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said work resumed Tuesday morning on the reactors, even though smoke is still coming from the facility. He said that crews hope to finish hooking up the unit 2 reactor to an electrical power supply by Wednesday and that they are still working on reactors 1, 3 and 4.

“Yesterday, there were some ups and downs,” he said. “That has currently settled down.”

The nuclear drama has drawn the attention of regulators around the world. At the Rockville hearing Monday, William Borchardt, the NRC’s executive director for operations, said the situation in Japan appeared to be stabilizing.

“The fact that off-site power is close to being available for use of plant equipment is perhaps the first optimistic sign that things could be turning around,” Borchardt said. “I would say optimistically things appear to be on the verge of stabilizing.”

Nothing that regulators have learned about the Japanese catastrophe indicated that any changes were warranted at U.S. nuclear plants, Borchardt said.

“We have found no reason to take any immediate regulatory action,” he said.

The commission will vote on a plan to conduct a 90-day study of the implications of the Japanese situation for the United States.

“We have a responsibility to the American people to undertake a systematic and methodical review of the safety of our own domestic nuclear facilities in light of the natural disaster and the resulting nuclear emergency in Japan,” NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko said.

So far, 8,928 people have died and 12,664 are missing since the 9.0-magnitude quake struck off the coast near Sendai, Japan’s National Police Agency said. Nearly 350,000 others have been placed in shelters across the region and as far away as Tokyo.

(PHOTOS: Massive rescue, cleanup efforts underway in Japan)

Martin Faller, head of the East Asia delegation of the International Red Cross, said Monday that fuel is scarce and that many people are suffering in the cold weather. Food has become more plentiful, but many elderly people are running low on medicine.

“It was really cold in the operation shelters, logistics had broken down, fuel and kerosene were difficult to get,” Faller said in an interview.

Government authorities said they have banned the sale of raw milk and spinach from several prefectures after they were found to contain excessive levels of radiation. The officials said the amounts still did not pose a threat to people’s health if consumed. Government scientists are now examining fish and shellfish, said Yoshifumi Kaji, director of the inspection and safety division of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

The ministry called on local governments Monday to advise residents to stop giving babies water in forms such as baby formula if radioactive iodine is found at elevated levels in drinking water, the Kyodo news service reported.

“Babies can easily absorb radioactive iodine in their thyroid glands,” the agency quoted a ministry official as saying.

Greater amounts of radioactive iodine and cesium were found in rain, dust and particles in the air in some areas over a 24-hour period starting Sunday morning because of rainfall, the agency reported.

Achenbach reported from Washington. Staff writer Rob Stein in Washington contributed to this report.

 
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