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Japan Raises Severity Level Of Nuclear Crisis

Japan acknowledged Friday that the enormity of the earthquake and tsunami that hit a week ago overwhelmed the government and slowed its response to the crisis at a nuclear power plant, where workers struggled to cool overheated fuel rods.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the "unprecedented scale" was beyond the scope of Japan's disaster contingency plans. "In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and provided it faster," he said.

The admission came as Japan's nuclear safety agency raised the severity rating of the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant from Level 4 to Level 5 on the seven-level International Nuclear Event Scale, said agency spokesman Ryohei Shiomi. That puts it on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979.

The scale defines a Level 4 incident as having local consequences and a Level 5 incident as having wider consequences. The 1986 Chernobyl accident, which killed at least 31 people with radiation sickness, raised long-term cancer rates, and spewed radiation for hundreds of miles, was ranked a Level 7.

While it's up to Japan to set the rating, other nations have suggested the Fukushima accident should be ranked a Level 6, which denotes a serious accident.

"We see it as an extremely serious accident," Yukiya Amano, the head of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters Friday just after arriving in Tokyo. "This is not something that just Japan should deal with, and people of the entire world should cooperate with Japan and the people in the disaster areas."

"I think they are racing against the clock," he said of the efforts to cool the Fukushima complex.

Race To Regain Control Of Fukushima

Early Saturday, emergency workers were preparing to resume using water cannons to hose down overheating spent fuel rods.

NPR's Chris Joyce reported that powerful water cannons have succeeded in getting at least some water into a spent fuel pool into reactor No. 3, where a hydrogen explosion Monday blew the roof off the building.

Workers have set up a big tanker truck they're calling "super pumper" next to one of the damaged reactors. The truck is connected to a hose that extends a quarter mile to draw sea-water in.

The water is needed to keep the fuel from breaking down and releasing radioactive material into the air. It also serves as a radiation shield.

"They can't see the pools, so they can't be sure the water's actually getting there. But spraying does produce a big cloud of steam, so Japanese officials say they're confident that the water is hitting something hot," NPR's Richard Harris said.

Engineers also continue efforts to run a power line to reactors No. 1 and 2. Tokyo Power Company will draw electricity from the north to try to get water pumps working again.

"The whole world, not just Japan, is depending on them," Tokyo office worker Norie Igarashi, 44, said of the emergency teams at the plants.

The magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami that hit Japan's northeast on March 11 set off the nuclear problems by knocking out power to cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Since then, four of the troubled plant's six reactor units have had fires, explosions or partial meltdowns.

The unfolding crises have led to power shortages in Japan, forced factories to close, sent shockwaves through global manufacturing and triggered a plunge in Japanese stock prices.

Two Main Challenges

One week after the quake and tsunami — which has left more than 6,900 dead and at least 10,700 missing — emergency crews are facing two challenges in the nuclear crisis: cooling the reactors where energy is generated, and cooling the adjacent spent fuel pools where used nuclear fuel rods are stored in water.

Both need water to keep their uranium cool and stop them from emitting radiation, but with radiation levels inside the complex already limiting where workers can go and how long they can remain, it's been difficult to get enough water inside.

"The pools at four reactors apparently have run dry or nearly dry," Joyce said. "Officials also report that temperature levels in pools at the fifth and sixth reactors at the site have gone up, but not enough to cause immediate concern."

But Joyce said experts are puzzled as to why, if the pools have indeed dried up, there hasn't already been a serious fire and a more significant release of radiation.

"It could be that the buildings and concrete are acting as a heat sink, soaking up the heat, or that they really aren't dry," he said.

A core team of 180 emergency workers at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant has been rotating out of the complex to minimize radiation exposure.

Crucial to the effort to regain control over the nuclear complex is laying a new power line to the plant, allowing operators to restore cooling systems. The storage pools need a constant source of cooling water. Even when removed from reactors, uranium rods are still extremely hot and must be cooled for months, possibly longer, to prevent them from heating up again and emitting radioactivity.

The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., had hoped to complete the power line late Thursday, but Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency spokesman Minoru Ohgoda said Friday that workers needed an additional 10 to 15 hours.

But the utility is not sure the cooling systems will still function. If they don't, electricity won't help.

Edano, the Cabinet secretary, said Friday that Tokyo has asked Washington for help and that the two allies were discussing the specifics.

Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, arrives at Narita airport near Tokyo on Friday. He is visiting to assess the extent of the devastation and how best the agency can help.
Jiji Press / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, arrives at Narita airport near Tokyo on Friday. He is visiting to assess the extent of the devastation and how best the agency can help.

"We are coordinating with the U.S. government as to what the U.S. can provide and what people really need," he said.

Experts from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are currently in Japan. The U.S. also is sending specialized aircraft to help determine the scope of the nuclear contamination. The converted Boeing C-135 plane, called Constant Phoenix or "the Sniffer," will fly over Japan's nuclear plants and take samples from the atmosphere. Another Air Force plane, a drone called Global Hawk, is already circling above the plants. Its infrared sensors can detect heat and help determine the effectiveness of attempts to cool the reactors.

Assessing The Dangers

Low levels of radiation have been detected well beyond Tokyo, which is 140 miles south of the plant, but hazardous levels have been limited to the plant itself. Still, the crisis has forced thousands to evacuate their homes and drained Tokyo's normally vibrant streets of life, its residents either leaving town or holing up indoors.

The Japanese government has been slow in releasing information on the crisis, even as the troubles have multiplied. In a country where the nuclear industry has a long history of hiding its safety problems, this has left many people in Japan and among governments overseas confused and anxious.

At times, Japan and the U.S. have offered starkly differing assessments over the dangers at Fukushima. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jazcko said Thursday that it could take days and "possibly weeks" to get the complex under control. He defended the U.S. decision to recommend a 50-mile evacuation zone for its citizens, wider than the 30-mile band Japan has ordered.

President Obama appeared on television to assure Americans that officials do not expect harmful amounts of radiation to reach the U.S. or its territories.

"I want to be very clear. We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it's the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories in the Pacific," he said Thursday.

On Friday, Obama called on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a comprehensive safety review of all U.S. nuclear plants to make sure they incorporate the lessons of the Fukushima disaster. He also said the U.S. was offering Japan any help it could provide.

The U.S. military, which has 50,000 troops based in Japan, was working to ramp up its relief effort. But snow has limited helicopter flights and American aircraft are under orders to skirt the area around the nuclear plant to reduce the risk of radiation exposure.

"It's frustrating," U.S. Navy rescue swimmer Jeff Pearson, 25, of Amarillo, Texas, told The Associated Press. "But we're doing all we can do. I think we are going to be able to get much more involved very soon."

In a statement Friday, the U.S. 7th Fleet said 12,750 of its personnel were involved in the relief effort, dubbed Operation Tomodachi, along with 20 ships led by the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and 140 aircraft.

A Moment Of Silence For The Victims

Sirens wailed along the country's devastated coastline at 2:46 p.m. Japan time on Friday to mark exactly one week since the quake. Many tsunami survivors, bundled up against the cold at shelters in the disaster zone, observed a minute of silence with heads bowed and hands folded in a show of respect.

Appearing on national television, Prime Minister Naoto Kan vowed his nation would not be defeated by the catastrophe, its worst since the end of World War II when Hiroshima and Nagasaki in ruins from U.S. atomic bombs.

"We will rebuild Japan from scratch," Kan said. "In our history, this small island nation has made miraculous economic growth, thanks to the efforts of all Japanese citizens. This is how Japan was built."

Japan national broadcaster NHK said elderly survivors at an emergency shelter in the town of Yamada stood and bowed their heads, many wiping away tears.

Police said more than 452,000 displaced people were staying in schools and other shelters. Supplies of fuel, medicine and other necessities ran short at many relief centers.

About 343,000 Japanese households still do not have electricity, and about 1 million have no water.

In Hachinohe, near the northern tip of Japan's main island of Honshu, NPR's Jason Beaubien reported that the twin natural disasters had knocked out the town main power plant, shutting down most of the industry.

"There also isn't much kerosene, and that's a huge problem because many people rely on kerosene to heat their own homes," Beaubien said, adding that just north of the town there was about six inches of snow on the ground.

With reporting from NPR's Christopher Joyce and Richard Harris in Tokyo, Jason Beaubien in Hachinohe and Tom Bowman in Washington, D.C. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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NPR Staff and Wires