Japanese nuclear crisis escalates

Jonathan Soble and Michiyo Nakamoto – FT.com March 14, 2011

Japan is racing against time to prevent a potential nuclear disaster after a third reactor at the quake-stricken power plant north of Tokyo went into meltdown on Monday.

Engineers have been battling for three days to prevent a nuclear disaster at Tokyo Electric Power’s Daiichi plant in Fukushima. But they have faced successive setbacks trying to cool down three reactors whose cooling systems were damaged after Japan was struck by a devastating 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on Friday.

Tepco said elevated radiation levels were detected nearby after water levels at reactor No. 2 fell dangerously low for several hours on Monday.

In the first full day of trading since the earthquake, Japan’s equity market reacted violently even as the Bank of Japan announced it would inject a record Y21,800bn ($265bn) in funds to financial institutions. The Nikkei plunged 6.2 per cent, its biggest drop in more than two years.

Earlier on Monday, efforts to release gas out of the overheating reactor caused an explosion at reactor No. 3, although officials said that crucially its protective containment vessel had not been damaged.

While engineers struggled to contain the nuclear crisis, the official death toll from Friday’s earthquake and tsunami reached 1,800. But the final death toll is expected to be much higher. Police in Miyagi prefecture, one of the worst affected regions, have estimated that at least 10,000 people were killed in their district alone.

In a sign of the growing concern about leaked radiation, the US navy on Monday began moving ships, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, that were helping the Japanese relief effort away from the area.

Separately, France has become the first country to advise its nationals to leave Tokyo amid growing alarm about problems at the nuclear power plant and a warning from meteorological agency about a possible large aftershock in the Kanto region.

On Monday evening, Tepco said water levels at the No. 2 reactor – where the coolant systems had been functioning better than those at the other reactors – had fallen low enough to expose the radioactive fuel, and suggested that the overheated fuel had partially melted, as is suspected to have happened at reactors No. 1 and No. 3.

The Japanese nuclear safety agency said the sudden drop in water level at reactor No. 2 went unnoticed for a while because their experts were checking the other reactors.

The earlier explosion at the No. 3 reactor on Monday came after combustible hydrogen had been collecting inside the reactor building since Sunday, as engineers vented gas from inside the reactor’s protective containment vessel in an effort to relieve pressure.

Tepco said the reactor’s protective containment shell remained intact after the blast. A similar explosion destroyed part of the plant’s No. 1 reactor building on Saturday.

Monday’s explosion, which occurred at about 11am local time, appeared to have been more powerful than the previous blast. An orange fireball – not visible in footage of Saturday’s explosion – was followed by large plumes of grey smoke or dust. Fragments of the building flew through the air.

“The possibility that a large amount of radiation has been released is low,” Yukio Edano, chief government spokesman, said at an emergency news conference.

Officials said 11 people had been injured by the explosion and that 500 more who had remained inside a 20km evacuation zone were being told to leave

Speaking in India, Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, which provided the design for the Fukushima plant, said he did not have a view on the life of the 40-year old reactor. He also said it was too early to say whether the incident would mark the start of a chill for the nuclear industry.

“We have to let it play out,” said Mr Immelt.

Rolling blackouts on Monday were smaller than initially expected, however, as businesses heeded calls to shut down – or were forced to do so for lack of supplies – and many commuters stayed at home, easing the strain on the electricity network.

Additional reporting by James Lamont in New Delhi

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