Military helicopters have dumped loads of seawater onto Japan’s stricken nuclear complex, turning to combat-style tactics while trying to cool overheated uranium fuel that may be on the verge of spewing out more radiation.
Plant operators also said they were racing to finish a new power line that could restore cooling systems and ease the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant on the country’s north-east coast.
The Foreign Office (FCO) has issued advice urging Britons to remain outside a 50-mile radius of the plant “as an additional precautionary measure”. It said the call was in line with the US government’s advice to its citizens in Japan.
The Japanese government said it had no plans to expand its mandatory, 12-mile exclusion zone around the plant on the north-east coast, while also urging people within 20 miles to stay inside.
The top US nuclear regulatory official has given a far bleaker assessment of the situation than the Japanese, and the US ambassador said the situation was “deteriorating” while warning US citizens within 50 miles of the complex to leave the area or at least remain indoors.
The crisis at the nuclear complex was set off when last week’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and destroyed back-up generators needed for the reactors’ cooling systems, adding a major nuclear crisis for Japan as it struggled with twin natural disasters that killed more than 10,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
Two Japanese military CH-47 Chinook helicopters began dumping seawater on the complex’s damaged Unit 3, although television footage showed much of it appearing to disperse in the wind. The water drops were aimed at cooling the Unit 3 reactor, as well as replenishing water in that unit’s cooling pool, where used fuel rods are stored.
Emergency workers were forced to temporarily retreat from the plant on Wednesday when radiation levels soared, losing precious time. While the levels later dropped, they were still too high to let workers get close.
A core team of 180 emergency workers has been, rotating in and out of the complex to try to reduce their radiation exposure. But experts said that anyone working close to the reactors was almost certainly being exposed to radiation levels that could, at least, give them much higher cancer risks.
“I don’t know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war,” said Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor of the Department of Radiology at University of Tokyo Hospital.