As Japan takes steps to cool stricken nuclear reactor, U.S. warns of long crisis

Radiation scanning crews check eath other's levels as they change their working shift at a screening centre in Koriyama in Fukushima prefecture.
Radiation scanning crews check eath other's levels as they change their working shift at a screening centre in Koriyama in Fukushima prefecture. (Afp/getty Images)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 18, 2011; 3:45 PM

TOKYO - Japanese officials took a series of early steps Friday to bring the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant under control, but a week into the crisis, it was becoming apparent that they were confronting a problem that would not be resolved quickly.

Special military firetrucks were used to spray water at a damaged reactor building for a second day Friday in an effort to cool spent fuel in a pool whose water level was believed to have run dangerously low. One U.S. military firetruck was used in the nearly 40-minute operation along with six Japanese vehicles normally used to put out fires at plane crashes, officials said. All the vehicles were reportedly driven by Japanese.

A top U.S. nuclear official warned Thursday that the emergency could continue for weeks, while President Obama tried to reassure the American public about the safety of nuclear power plants in the United States.

The moves reflected widening worries in Japan and the United States about the failure so far to contain radiation leaks from nuclear power plants damaged in last Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the devastating tsunami that followed.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the Fukushima Daiichi plant, said a risky mission using helicopters and water cannons Thursday to dump tons of water on the most troubled reactor had succeeded in reducing radiation levels. But Graham Andrew of the International Atomic Energy Agency cautioned at a news conference: "It is still possible that it could get worse."

Japanese officials said they would continue trying to deliver water to storage pools. Without water, spent fuel rods stored in the pools would start to decay and release radioactive matter into the air.

There were also hopes that Japan's success in reconnecting electric power to another reactor would allow engineers to restart pumps that play an essential role in delivering coolant.

Over the next few weeks, radiation will continue to spew from the plant at levels high enough to make it difficult for people to work there. What's more, the facility itself has been ravaged by earthquakes, flooding and explosions that have torn much of the infrastructure - power lines, pumps and pipes - to shreds and scattered debris, making access even for robots challenging.

Toll continues to rise

As Japan continued its grim recovery effort, the official death toll from the earthquake and tsunami reached 5,692 people by Friday morning, with more than 9,500 others listed as officially missing. Nearly half a million are being housed in temporary shelters, and widespread power outages have left broad swaths of the country without adequate heat.

In Washington, President Obama made an unannounced visit Thursday to the Japanese Embassy and signed a condolence book. Later, speaking from the Rose Garden, he said the U.S. was "working aggressively to support our Japanese ally."

The Yomiuri Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper, reported Friday that Japan's government had turned down an early U.S. offer of help in cooling fuel rods at the damaged nuclear reactors. The paper reported that the government and Tokyo Electric believed that they would be capable of restoring the cooling system.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano denied that Japanese officials had rejected the offer.

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