Japan sees progress in race to cool nuclear reactors

Over 300 engineers struggle to salvage Fukushima plant; workers manage to connect power to No. 2 reactor, crucial to limit radiation leak.

March 20, 2011 18:45
3 minute read.
Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in Japan

Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in Japan. (photo credit: REUTERS/DigitalGlobe/Handout)

TOKYO - Japan restored power to a crippled nuclear reactor on Sunday in its race to avert disaster at a plant wrecked by an earthquake and tsunami that are estimated to have killed more than 15,000 people in one area alone.

Three hundred engineers have been struggling inside the danger zone to salvage the six-reactor Fukushima plant in the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl 25 years ago.

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"I think the situation is improving step by step," Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama told a news conference.

In one remarkable story of survival, an 80-year-old woman and 16-year-old youth were found alive under the rubble in the devastated city of Ishinomaki, nine days after the killer earthquake and tsunami, NHK public TV said, quoting police.

At the nuclear plant, workers braving high radiation levels in suits sealed in duct tape managed to connect power to the No. 2 reactor, crucial to their attempts to cool it down and limit the leak of deadly radiation.

Officials at plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said the workers aimed to restore the control room function, lights and the cooling at the No. 1 reactor, which is connected to the No.2 reactor by cable.

But rising cases of contaminated vegetables, dust and water have raised new fears. The government has prohibited the sale of raw milk from Fukushima prefecture and spinach from another nearby area. It is considering further restrictions on food.

Tokyo, just 240 km (150 miles) south of the crippled plant and where the government said it had found traces of radioactive iodine, was subdued on Sunday but there was no sense of panic.

"There's no way I can check if those radioactive particles are in my tap water or the food I eat, so there isn't much I can really do about it," said Setsuko Kuroi, an 87-year-old woman shopping in a supermarket in the capital with a white gauze mask over her face.

"I don't plan big changes to my diet. And I only drink bottled water."

Police: More than 20,000 people dead, missing

Police said they believed more than 15,000 people had been killed in Miyagi prefecture, one of four in Japan's northeast that took the brunt of the tsunami damage. In total, more than 20,000 are dead or missing, police said.

The unprecedented crisis will cost the world's third largest economy up to quarter of a trillion dollars and require Japan's biggest reconstruction push since post-World War Two.

It has also set back nuclear power plans the world over.

Economics Minster Kaoru Yosano put the economic damage at above 20 trillion yen ($248 billion), which was his estimate of the total economic impact of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe.

Government spending was likely to exceed the 3.3 trillion yen Tokyo spent after Kobe, which up to now has been considered the world's costliest natural disaster.

Japan's crisis spooked markets, prompted rare intervention by the G7 group of rich nations to stabilize the yen on Friday, and fuelled concerns the world economy may suffer because of disrupted supplies to auto and technology industries.

Automaker General Motors Co said it was suspending all non-essential spending and global travel, plus freezing production at a plant in Spain and cancelling two shifts in Germany while it assessed the impact of the Japan crisis.

Japanese markets will be closed on Monday for a public holiday.

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