Japan declares emergency at nuke plant, cooling system not working
Thousands evacuated from an area around a nuclear reactor after damage caused by a powerful earthquake raised fears of a radiation leak.
Fri, Mar 11 2011 at 9:41 AM
DISASTER: Tokyo Electric Power had been operating three out of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant at the time of the quake, all of which shut down.(Photo: Weather.gov)
TOKYO - Japan started to evacuate thousands of residents from an area around a nuclear reactor after damage caused by a powerful earthquake raised fears of a radiation leak, although officials said there was no sign of leakage at present.
The government declared an emergency situation as a precaution, saying a cooling system was not working.
Work has begun on restoring the reactor's cooling function, Jiji news agency quoted the Trade Ministry as saying, while Kyodo news agency quoted Fukushima prefecture as saying that water levels at the reactor were not at critical levels.
Residents that live within a 3 km radius of Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have been told to evacuate, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference. Kyodo news agency said 3,000 residents were being evacuated.
Tomoko Murakami, leader of the nuclear energy group at Japan's Institute of Energy Economics, said there did not appear to be an imminent danger of a radiation leak.
"Even if fuel rods are exposed, it does not mean they would start melting right away," she said.
"Even if fuel rods melt and the pressure inside the reactor builds up, radiation would not leak as long as the reactor container functions well."
But Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned that the situation could turn grave.
"This is no laughing matter," he said, referring to unconfirmed reports that one or more of the emergency diesel generators for the cooling system were not working.
He said there was serious concern in Japan whether the cooling of the core and removal of residual heat could be assured.
"If that does not happen, if heat is not removed, there is a definite danger of a core melt ... fuel will overheat, become damaged and melt down."
TEPCO confirmed that water levels inside the reactors at its Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant were falling but it was working to maintain water levels to avert the exposure of nuclear fuel rods.
The company has been trying to restore power to its emergency power system so that it could add water inside the reactors, a TEPCO spokesman said.
"There is a falling trend (in water levels) but we have not confirmed an exposure of nuclear fuel rods," a TEPCO spokesman said.
Reactors shut down due to the earthquake account for 18 percent of Japan's nuclear power generating capacity.
Japan's nuclear power sector produces about 30 percent of the country's electricity and has been rocked periodically over the past decade by safety concerns. Many reactors are located in earthquake-prone zones such as northeastern Fukushima prefecture and Fukui prefecture on the Japan seacoast.
Japan has also told the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that a heightened state of alert was declared at the Fukushima facility.
TEPCO had been operating three out of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant at the time of the quake, all of which — the No.1, No.2 and No.3 units — shut down.
The spokesman added that there were no concerns of a water leak for the remaining three reactors at the plant, which had been shut for planned maintenance.
(Additional reporting by Risa Maeda in Tokyo and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Edmund Klamann)
Copyright 2011 Reuters US Online Report World News
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