Workers were frantically trying to stablize four of the plant's six reactors after the effects of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and hundreds of severe aftershocks. The plant also was inundated by Friday's tsunami wave.
About 800 workers had been evacuated Tuesday, leaving a core group of 50 workers who were being exposed to high doses of radiation as they tried to keep the nuclear fuel rods cool and extinguish fires in the plant's reactors.
Radiation levels near the Daiichi nuclear power plant were higher than normal late Tuesday. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters that the Unit 1, Unit 2 and Unit 3 reactors were all releasing hazardous radioactive material at levels high enough to affect human health.
Smoke rises from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Japan's Pacific coast, March 14, 2011 (Photo courtesy TEPCO)
At dawn on Wednesday morning, another fire broke out at Fukushima Daiichi's Unit 4 reactor, Tokyo Electric reported. Nobody was injured.
An earlier blaze occurred Tuesday morning at the Unit 4 reactor, where the pump used to put water into the reactor is located. It was extinguished but broke out again Wednesday morning.
TEPCO had requested firefighters to attend, saying its workers could reach the fire due to the high level of radioactivity at the site.
Authorities fear that the fuel rods in two other reactors at the Daiichi power plant are being rapidly damaged as they remain exposed due to the failed injection of coolant. Damaged fuel rods emit radioactive material. Experts fear that a massive amount of radioactive material has leaked from the reactors after the series of accidents that damaged nuclear fuel rods.
Tokyo Electric Power has estimated the extent of holes and cracks in the fuel rods, based on the amount of radioactive material in the coolant.
At 1 pm on Tuesday, the company said 43 percent of the fuel rods in Daiichi's Unit 1 reactor were possibly damaged, and by 3:25 pm the ratio had increased to 70 percent. At the Unit 2 reactor, the ratio rose Tuesday from from 14 percent of the fuel rods damaged to 33 percent.
Sea water is being pumped into both these reactors to cool them, but the coolant level remains low, creating the risk of a nuclear fuel meltdown.
Tokyo Electric Power said on Tuesday that the pressure inside the reactors sank after radioactive steam was released, and the company was monitoring the data while continuing to pump sea water into the damaged reactors. Now the company is considering spraying water onto the damaged reactors from helicopters.
The smoke from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is visible in this webcam image, March 15, 2011. (Image courtesy TEPCO)
Weather experts say winds near the damaged nuclear plant are blowing out to sea as they usually do this time of year, dispersing the radioactivity in the air out over the Pacific Ocean.
Yet another problem has emerged at the Daiichi power plant - the coolant level is dropping in the Unit 5 reactor, which was shut down for regular inspection during the quake.
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency had said the Unit 5 reactor shut down safely during the inspection, but at the time of the quake, the nuclear fuel rods were already in the reactor and workers had to circulate water to cool them down.
The problem occurred when the tsunami wave damaged a diesel generator for circulating the coolant, complicated by the failure of a valve, allowing the pressure in the reactor to rise.
Tuesday night the water level was just two meters (6.5 feet) above the fuel rods, dropping 40 centimeters (1.3 feet) in five hours.
Eleven experts from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission are traveling to Japan to provide technical advice on managing the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, as requested by the Japanese government.
The team is led by Charles Casto, deputy regional administrator of the NRC's Center of Construction Inspection, based in Atlanta, Georgia. Casto has worked in the commercial nuclear power industry at three nuclear power plants, including Browns Ferry, which has three boiling water reactors, operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority in Alabama. He has also worked as a licensed reactor operator and operator instructor. Casto will provide a single point of contact for the U.S. Ambassador in Japan on nuclear reactor issues.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, second from left, meets with emergency officials at the Headquarters for Emergency Disaster, March 14, 2011 (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
Japanese officials say they will cooperate closely with these experts as they try to solve the problems at Fukushima Daiichi.
The Japanese government, which ordered the evacuation of all residents within a 20 kilometer radius of the stricken plant, has issued an order that people within the 20 to 30 km zone around the power plant remain indoors.
Even so, people are leaving the area as quickly as they can, but power shortages have crippled train travel, and fuel, food and water shortages make life difficult for survivors. Roads and bridges throughout northeastern Honshu are damaged, making travel more hazardous.
The number of dead and missing from Friday's earthquake and tsunami has passed 11,000. This is the first time since World War Two that Japan has recorded so many victims in a natural disaster.
Police say 3,676 deaths have been confirmed to date, and 7,558 people remain unaccounted for.
Since Friday, Japan's Self-Defense Force has rescued about 19,000 people from hard-hit coastal regions, but 23,300 people are still stranded and awaiting rescue.
Hospitals are overflowing with people injured in the earthquake and tsunami surge. In the small town of Ishinomaki, the International Red Cross says the survivors shiver under blankets in hospital corridors, suffering from hypothermia in the bitter cold, having been stranded in their homes without water or electricity.
A member of the Japanese Red Cross feeds a baby, a survivor of the earthquake and tsunami, at the Ishinomaki Red Cross hospital. March 12, 2011. (Photo courtesy Japanese Red Cross)
Red Cross writer Patrick Fuller describes the situation of Dr. Takayaki Takahashi, a surgeon who leads one of the five mobile medical teams that operate out of the Ishinomaki hospital. He has been on call for 48 hours straight, Fuller reports, hastening each day to clinics at evacuation centers set up in public buildings where thousands of people are being sheltered.
"Today we went to Miyoto, which is only about 10 kilometers away by road, but the bridge from the mainland had been swept away. We had to get there by helicopter as it is still surrounded by water," Dr. Takahashi said. "We treated 100 people and left three days rations of food and water for 700 people who are sheltering in a school."
The Japanese Red Cross has deployed over 80 medical teams to hospitals that are receiving the sick and injured, Fuller reports. The teams operate mobile clinics to care for the estimated 500,000 people displaced by the earthquake and tsunami.
Soon, search and rescue teams will focus on the retrieval of dead bodies along the devastated coastline. The Ishinomaki hospital is setting up a special tent to store bodies and help with the identification process.
A powerful earthquake with a magnitude of 6.0 jolted central Japan on Tuesday night. The Japan Meteorological Agency says the quake hit at 10:31 pm in the eastern part of Shizuoka Prefecture, about 75 miles southwest of Tokyo, and near Mount Fuji.
It was just one of three earthquakes of magnitude 6.0 or greater that rattled the main island, Honshu, on Tuesday. Two were felt off the island's northeast coast in the approximate location of the record quake that struck Friday afternoon, unleashing a deadly tsunami wave and damaging nuclear reactors.
The magnitude of that initial March 11 earthquake has been updated to 9.0 from the previous estimate of 8.9 by both Japanese and American seismologists. The U.S. Geological Survey says updates occur as more data become available and more time-intensive analysis is performed.
The 9.0 magnitude places the earthquake as the fourth largest in the world since 1900 and the largest in Japan since modern instrumental recordings began 130 years ago.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.