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NRC Chief Warns of Risks as Japanese Flee Tsunami Region

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko
Dr. Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Japan’s crippled nuclear power plant is releasing “extremely high” levels of radiation that could be life-threatening, the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission told lawmakers as hundreds of Japanese fled south of areas hit by last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

All the water in one of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant’s spent-fuel cooling pools has drained, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told a House Energy and Commerce Committee panel in Washington. “Radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures,” he said.

Japanese officials denied that the water from the cooling pools was gone, the Associated Press reported.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers are struggling to prevent a nuclear meltdown at the complex, which has six reactors, 135 miles (217 kilometers) north of Tokyo. With his nation still reeling from strongest earthquake to hit it on record and a resulting tsunami, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said on March 15 the danger of further radiation leaks has increased.

The United Nations’ nuclear agency plans an emergency meeting on the crisis. Japan faces a “serious situation,” Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters in Vienna before departing for talks with authorities in Tokyo today.

Amano said fuel stored in units 4, 5 and 6 at the Tepco facility is exposed and releasing radiation. Separately, Tepco official Masahisa Otsuku said the No. 2 reactor’s containment vessel may have been breached.

‘Bad Movie’

“It looks like a bad movie,” Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, told a London news conference. “You wouldn’t believe a movie that had the largest ever earthquake, a huge tsunami and then, of course, several of the reactors are now acting up.” Still, he said, Japan has “recovered with great resilience from past tragedies.”

Japanese stocks rebounded as investors bet that the 9.5 percent drop on March 15, the biggest decline in 2½ years, was excessive. The Topix index closed 6.6 percent higher yesterday. Plywood-maker Kanematsu-NNK Corp. jumped 38 percent.

In the wake of Jaczko’s remarks, Nikkei 225 Stock Average futures in Chicago showed the benchmark measure of Japanese shares may drop today.

Reconstruction Needs

The earthquake and tsunami will boost the yen as the economy’s focus shifts from exports to reconstruction, increasing demand for raw-material imports and fueling the commodity boom, HSBC Holdings Plc said.

“The destruction of infrastructure will require a massive reconstruction effort,” HSBC economists including London-based Stephen King and Madhur Jha said in a note to clients. “The yen should rise to divert resources away from exports toward domestic reconstruction.”

The yen was at 80.05 per dollar at 3:04 a.m. in Tokyo, the strongest since April 1995, when it touched a post-World War II high of 79.75.

Tepco said it’s building a power line to the Dai-Ichi plant’s cooling systems, which were knocked out by the quake. U.S. stocks pared losses after the Associated Press reported that Tepco said the power line was almost ready. Later, company spokesman Sakio Iwamoto said the timing hadn’t been determined.

The failure of backup generators used to pump cooling water caused explosions in at least three of structures surrounding the station’s reactors, as well as a fire in a pond containing spent fuel rods.

Spent-Fuel Pools

Temperatures in the spent-fuel-rod cooling pools of the shuttered No. 5 and No. 6 reactors were rising to as high as 63 degrees Celsius (145 degrees Fahrenheit) at 2 p.m. yesterday, said Tsuyoshi Makigami, head of nuclear maintenance at Tepco. Water levels at spent fuel pools at the three inactive reactors, Nos. 4, 5 and 6, dropped by about 2 meters, exposing the fuel rods, Amano said.

Exposed to air, the fuel bundles could chemically react with moisture, catch fire and spread radiation into the atmosphere, said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Spent fuel is pretty hot and so it is stored under water to keep it cool,” said Kelley, who worked for 30 years at the U.S. Energy Department. “If the water leaks or boils away, then the fuel is exposed,” then after burning, the uranium corrodes and releases cesium, contaminating the area, he said.

Peak-Level Threat

The NRC’s Jaczko said radiation at the Japanese site is fluctuating and at peak levels “would be lethal within a fairly short period of time.”

He told reporters later that the information came from NRC staff that were dispatched to Japan to help with the response and have been in contact with industry officials there.

Jaczko’s assessment prompted the U.S. to recommend American citizens living within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the plant evacuate or take shelter indoors as a precaution against possible radiation exposure. That exceeded the Japanese government’s recommendation of a 12-mile (20-kilometer) zone.

A core group of 50 workers remain at the plant to manage the reactors, Tepco said. Those engineers were temporarily evacuated yesterday when dangerous radiation levels were detected, but have now returned, chief government spokesman Yukio Edano said.

Fleeing Region

For the past days, people have been fleeing the region toward Tokyo. In the capital, supermarkets reported panic buying of household goods and fears of nuclear contamination have prompted some people to leave the city. Four-hundred kilometers southwest of Tokyo in Osaka, some hotels said they were fully booked.

SAP AG, the world’s biggest business software company, said it has reserved 520 rooms in Osaka and Kobe that employees and their families can use. Austria’s ambassador in Japan is leaving Tokyo because of the reactors’ “unpredictability” and will work from Osaka, the state-run Austrian Press Agency reported. The German government said yesterday it is moving part of its embassy operations to Osaka.

The French and German embassies have recommended that all their citizens leave Japan.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. is flying two extra flights from Tokyo today due to “rapidly increasing demand from people wishing to return home to Hong Kong and elsewhere,” Chief Operating Officer John Slosar said in an e-mailed statement.

Flights Diverted

Alitalia SpA joined Deutsche Lufthansa AG in rerouting flights away from Tokyo. Alitalia will divert its 14 weekly trips to Tokyo from Rome and Milan to the southern city of Osaka, which it already serves with four weekly flights, the company said in a statement yesterday.

A magnitude 6 aftershock to the east of Sendai shook buildings in Tokyo at 12:52 p.m. local time yesterday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. There have been more than 450 aftershocks since the magnitude-9 temblor left hundreds of thousands stranded and without power, with disruptions to food and water supplies. The Japanese government has dispatched 100,000 troops to the northeastern region.

The official death toll at 4 p.m. local time yesterday was 3,771 people, with 8,181 missing, the National Police Agency said. The tsunami and fears of a meltdown at the plant forced 451,059 people from their homes.

Eleven of Japan’s 54 reactors have been operating for 35 years or more. Two of those rank among the 10 oldest operating units in the world, according to the World Nuclear Association.

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