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Fears that America could be hit by the nuclear fallout from the Japan earthquake have dramatically increased as workers prepared to abandon a reactor crippled by the earthquake and tsunami last night in the face of what is set to become the world’s second worst nuclear disaster – topped only by Chernobyl.
Damage at the number two reactor at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex is worse than thought, the Japanese government admitted tonight, sparking fears for human health both in Japan and the U.S.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has admitted it is ‘quite possible’ the fallout could reach America.
The dramatic escalation in the severity of the disaster came after an explosion at the number two reactor at 6am in Japan on Tuesday morning.
Initially authorities downplayed the explosion. However industry executives told the New York Times that the explosion damaged a containment facility – and now the situation has spiralled out of control.
Japan’s prime minister warned those within 19 miles of the plant to stay indoors. ‘It’s way past Three Mile Island already,’ Frank von Hippel, a physicist and professor at Princeton, told the New York Times.
A fire in the plant’s fourth reactor also sparked fears tonight but has since been extinguished, the AP reported.
Scientists in the U.S. warned yesterday of a ‘worst-case scenario’ in which the highly radioactive material could be blasted into the atmosphere and blown towards the West Coast.
They said it could be picked up by powerful 30,000ft winds, carrying the debris across the Pacific and hitting the West Coast. Some estimates claimed the radiation could arrive on America’s shores by Tuesday evening, according to the AFP.
The French Embassy in Tokyo warned tonight that a ‘radioactive wind’ is set to reach the city of more than 13million people by around 8amEST on Tuesday. Radiation levels are already higher than usual this morning.
Meanwhile meteorological agencies warned tonight that winds over the stricken plant are due to shift to the west later Tuesday.
“Right now it’s quite possible that there could be some radiation floating over the United States,’ said Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman David McIntyre.
Officials downplayed the danger to humans, saying they did not believe the radiation would be ‘particularly harmful’.
A desperate race against time to avert a nuclear disaster was under way in Japan last night. Officials revealed fuel rods are melting inside three damaged reactors at the Fukushima plant, triggering fears of a serious radiation leak.
Japan has appealed to the U.S. for help to control three overheating reactors crippled by Friday’s devastating earthquake.
The plea came yesterday as a second and third explosion rocked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, damaging two reactors.
A senior Japanese politician said there were signs that fuel rods were melting in all three reactors. ‘Although we cannot directly check it, it’s highly likely to be happening,’ said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.
Experts said the nightmare scenario was of a meltdown which triggers a massive build-up of pressure inside the containment unit. If the unit cracks, a plume of radioactive dust and gas would spill hundreds of miles into the air.
Fears of that meltdown at a Japanese power plant rose sharply last night after a new explosion was reported in the complex.
It is understood the blast was in the Number 2 reactor, where fuel rods had been in danger of overheating. Explosions have already occurred in the Number 1 and Number 3 reactors.
The new drama occurred because the explosion in the Number 3 reactor had damaged the cooling system in the adjoining reactor, resulting in last night’s third blast.
Others have suggested any radioactive cloud would be likely to blow out east across the Pacific.
‘The wind direction for the time being seems to point the (nuclear) pollution towards the Pacific,’ Andre-Claude Lacoste, of the French Nuclear Safety Authority, told AFP.
The NRC downplayed the threat to Americans, however. Mr McIntyre told the AFP: ‘We don’t think that it would be particularly harmful… even in a worst case scenario.’
‘We see a very low likelihood, a very low probability that there is any possibility of harmful radiation levels in the United States or in Hawaii or in any other U.S. territories,’ added an NRC statement.
And University of Washington Professor of Atmospheric Science Dan Jaffe told Q13 Fox earlier: ‘Based on what we’re seeing in terms of the radiation that’s being released now, there is no risk at all.
‘Even in the worst case scenario there is a low likelihood of much risk over the Pacific Northwest.’
Nuclear regulators say the General Electric-designed reactors involved in the emergency are very similar to 23 reactors used in the U.S, reported MSNBC.
‘The worst case scenario is that the fuel rods fuse together,’ nuclear expert Joe Cirincione said.
‘The temperatures get so hot that they melt together into a radioactive molten mass that bursts through the containment mechanisms and it is exposed to the outside so there’s spewed radioactivity into the ground, into the air and into the water,’ he told Fox 43.
‘Some of that radioactivity could carry in the atmosphere to the West Coast of the United States.’
After Japan’s request to the United States for help cooling the reactors, the Commission said it was considering providing technical advice.
President Barack Obama offered any help the U.S. could provide to help recover from its ‘multiple disasters’.
Officials have been struggling to pacify the public’s concerns about radioactive material escaping into the atmosphere.
With serious questions now surrounding the safety of the three crippled reactors, many people believe the chances of the material escaping have increased dramatically.
Workers at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant fled last night after a third explosion raised serious concerns about a meltdown.
Embarrassed officials of the Tokyo Electric Power company called a hurried news conference in Tokyo to apologise to the public for ‘the inconvenience’.
But they were hesitant in disclosing details about the full extent of the danger to the public.
Leading nuclear expert Dr John Large, who has visited the plant, said he is concerned that where the radiation ends up is ‘in the lap of the gods’.
‘The exclusion zone keeps being raised. First it was 3km, then 10, now 20. This plant has gone through all the steps that occurred at Three Mile Island, and that led to total meltdown.
‘It looks like the reactors automatically shut down following the earthquake, causing a massive collapse of power to the grid,’ he told the Sunday Express.
The U.S. Navy moved ships away from the devastated north-east Japanese coast after a Navy crew delivering aid received almost a month’s worth of radiation in just one hour.
The U.S.S. Ronald Reagan was around 100 miles offshore when low-level radioactive contamination was detected from the stricken Fukushima plant.
Low radiation levels were detected on 17 members of the crew on three helicopters as they returned to the ship after delivering aid to the devastated city of Sendai.
Most of the radiation was found on the clothing of the 17-man crew, but also on one’s skin. The sailors were said to not have experienced ill-effects following the incident.
Contamination was found on the helicopters, which were scrubbed down on landing.
The U.S. Seventh Fleet has moved its ships and aircraft away from the Fukushima plant – hit by two explosions since Friday’s dramatic earthquake and tsunami.
The radiation fears were raised as the helicopters returned after delivering aid.
The helicopters sounded the alert around 60 miles from the coast and the ship’s sensors also sounded when it was 100 miles north east of the plant.
The fleet said the dose was around the same as one month’s normal exposure to the environment’s natural background radiation.
The Reagan and several other Navy ships were later repositioned away from the wind coming from Fukushima as a ‘precautionary’ measure, a U.S. Navy spokesman said.
‘The maximum potential radiation dose received by any ship’s force personnel aboard the ship when it passed through the area was less than the radiation exposure received from about one month of exposure to natural background radiation from sources such as rocks, soil and the sun,’ Navy spokesman Jeff Davis said.
He told ABC News: ‘We remain totally committed to our mission of providing assistance to the people of Japan.’
In a day of worrying developments in Japan:
* The official death toll rose to 2,800 but is expected eventually to exceed 10,000.
* Two thousand bodies were washed up in two towns in the worst affected area in north-east Japan.
* Strong aftershocks persisted in the stricken area, and a 4.1 magnitude earthquake jolted Tokyo at about 4pm EST yesterday.
* About 450,000 people have been evacuated nationwide – plus 180,000 from around the nuclear plant, where 190 have been exposed to some form of radiation.
* Almost 2million households are without power in the freezing north and about1.4million households have been left without running water.
Two other nuclear plants are also thought to be under threat. At Tokai there were also fears of overheating reactors as cooling pumps failed, while high levels of radiation were detected at the nuclear plant at Onagawa.
But the main concern remained the Fukushima plant on the north-east coast, where weary engineers were working around the clock for the fourth day.
Before last night’s third explosion they had been engaged in a last-ditch move to use seawater to cool the overheating core in reactor number two after fuel rods inside it were exposed.
Experts said it was probably the first time in the nuclear industry’s 57-year history that seawater, which is corrosive, has been used to cool fuel rods, a sign of how close Japan may be to a major accident.
Although the plant’s three working reactors shut down automatically when the magnitude nine earthquake struck, the cooling systems which keep the radioactive uranium and plutonium fuel rods cool have been hit by a series of failures.
Earlier yesterday a vast cloud of black smoke erupted from the plant after an explosion – the second in two days – demolished the building housing reactor three.
The explosion was triggered when engineers released steam to prevent a dangerous build-up of pressure inside the sealed reactor. At superheated temperatures inside the core the water vapour had split into hydrogen and oxygen which ignited, destroying the outer building and injuring 11 people, one seriously.
A similar explosion rocked the plant on Saturday when steam was released from another reactor.
Yesterday’s blast left the 80-inch concrete and steel walls which protect the nuclear reactor intact.
However, shortly after the explosion, the Tokyo Electric Power Company said it had lost the ability to cool the neighbouring reactor two – the third reactor to suffer cooling problems.
As the engineers tried to inject seawater using fire pumps the water levels dropped twice unexpectedly, leaving the fuel rods uncovered by cooling water. At one point they were exposed for two and a half hours.
Without coolant, fuel rods can overheat and melt. In a serious meltdown, radioactive molten material falls through the floor of the containment vessel into the ground underneath.
The drama at Fukushima has added to the anxiety for locals shellshocked by the quake and tsunami. Many Japanese are sceptical of assurances given by government officials about nuclear leaks, following at least two cover-ups in the wake of dramas in other plants in recent years.
Men in protective suits continued to sweep Geiger counters over terrified survivors, looking for evidence of radiation exposure.
Tokyo Electric Power conceded that radiation levels around the complex had risen above the safety limit but tried to appease the public by stating that it did not mean an ‘immediate threat’ to human health.
It also emerged yesterday that the government ignored explicit warnings from a Japanese expert on nuclear power more than three years ago.
Professor Ishibashi Katsuhiko, of Kobe University, said the guidelines introduced to protect the nuclear plants were ‘seriously flawed’ and that the plants were vulnerable to major quakes.
‘Unless radical steps are taken now to reduce the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to earthquakes, Japan could experience a true nuclear catastrophe in the near future,’ he warned in 2007.
Scientists say there are serious dangers but little risk of a catastrophe similar to the 1986 blast in Chernobyl, where the reactor did not have a containment shell. Some said the length of time since the crisis began showed the chemical reactions inside the reactor were not moving quickly toward a complete meltdown.
Even so, the nuclear danger has prompted several countries to warn against travelling to and staying in Japan. In Britain, the Foreign Office advised against all non-essential travel to Tokyo and the north-east of Japan.
Obama said he is heartbroken by the events unfolding in Japan and pledged America will support the country.
He told an audience: ‘All of you, young and old, have been watching the full magnitude of this tragedy unfold’ and added that the Japanese are ‘some of our closest friends and allies’.
Disaster shows nuclear should be scrapped, say green groups
Green campaigners wasted no time in exploiting the disaster, claiming it proved nuclear power could never be safe.
Greenpeace warned that Japan faced a nuclear meltdown.
Steve Campbell, of Greenpeace, said: ‘This proves once and for all that nuclear power cannot ever be safe. Japan’s nuclear plants were built with the latest technology, specifically to withstand natural disasters, yet we still face potential meltdown.’
Greenpeace was also concerned about the lack of data on the total amount of radiation already released, and whether the areas where spent radioactive fuel is dumped – outside the containment area of the reactor – were secure.
But nuclear scientists said the earthquake had highlighted how Japan’s power stations were robust.
Professor Paddy Regan, a nuclear physicist at Surrey University, said: ‘We had a doomsday earthquake in a country with 55 nuclear power stations and they all shut down perfectly, although three have had problems since.
‘This was a huge earthquake, and as a test of the resilience and robustness of nuclear plants it seems they have withstood the effects very well.’
Nuclear energy ‘remains a part of the President’s overall energy plan’, despite new concerns about its safety, a White House spokesman said.
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