Japan lays power cable in race to stop radiation

Nearly 7,000 confirmed dead and 10,700 missing; engineers desperately try to get water pumps working to cool down overheated fuel rods.

Japan Nuclear Plant Satellite 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Japan Nuclear Plant Satellite 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
TOKYO - Exhausted engineers attached a power cable to the outside of Japan's tsunami-crippled nuclear plant on Saturday in a desperate attempt to get water pumps going that would cool down overheated fuel rods and prevent the deadly spread of radiation.   
Beleaguered Prime Minister Naoto Kan sounded out the opposition, which only hours before the quake struck had been trying to oust him from office, about establishing a government of national unity to deal with a crisis that has shattered Japan and sent a shock through global financial markets, with major economies joining forces to calm the Japanese yen.    
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Further cabling inside was under way before an attempt to restart water pumps needed to cool overheated nuclear fuel rods at the six-reactor Fukushima plant in northeastern Japan, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.   
Working inside a 20 km (12 miles) evacuation zone at Fukushima, nearly 300 engineers were focused on trying to find a solution by restoring power to pumps in four of the reactors.
They managed to restart a diesel pump which they were using to cool reactor No. 5, the nuclear safety agency said.   
"TEPCO has connected the external transmission line with the receiving point of the plant and confirmed that electricity can be supplied," the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co , said in a statement.   
Another 1,480 meters (5,000 feet) of cable are being laid inside the complex before engineers try to crank up the coolers at reactor No.2, followed by numbers 1, 3 and 4 this weekend, company officials said.    
"If they are successful in getting the cooling infrastructure up and running, that will be a significant step forward in establishing stability," said Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at US-based FocalPoint Consulting Group.    
If that fails, one option under consideration is to bury the sprawling 40-year-old plant in sand and concrete to prevent a catastrophic radiation release.    
That method was used to seal huge leakages from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the world's worst nuclear reactor disaster.   
"Power supply is an absolute necessity," said Michio Ishikawa, former president of the Japan Nuclear Technology Institute. "It will take at least one week for things to stabilize and real stability will take much more time."   
Jiji news agency reported the TEPCO had begun using a diesel water pump at reactor No.5.  But by midday, the cable for reactor No. 2 had still notbeen connected. The plant's operator said it hoped to connect to reactor No.4 later on Saturday or possibly on Sunday.   
Underlining the desperation, fire trucks sprayed water overnight in a crude tactic to cool reactor No.3, considered the most critical because of its use of mixed oxides, or mox, containing both uranium and highly toxic plutonium.   
"I humbly apologize to the public for causing such trouble. Although it was due to natural disaster, I am extremely regretful," the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper quoted TEPCO CEO Masataka Shimizu as saying in a statement.   
Japan has raised the severity rating of the nuclear crisis to level 5 from 4 on the seven-level INES international scale, putting it on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, although some experts say it is more serious. Chernobyl, in Ukraine, was a 7 on that scale.   
Nearly 7,000 people have been confirmed killed in the double natural disaster, which turned whole towns into waterlogged and debris-shrouded wastelands. Another 10,700 people are missing with many feared dead. Some 390,000 people, including many among Japan's ageing population, are homeless and battling near-freezing temperatures in shelters in northeastern coastal areas.    
Food, water, medicine and heating fuel are in short supply and a Worm Moon, when the full moon is at its closest to Earth, may bring floods to devastated areas where the geography has been changed by the disaster.