March 18, 2011


[Japanese officials said they would continue those efforts, but were also racing to restore electric power to the site to get equipment going again, leaving open the question of why that effort did not begin days ago, at the first signs that the critical backup cooling systems for the reactors had failed.]


Fire trucks converged in preparation for spraying
water at the Fukushima nuclear plant, in Iwaki, on Friday.
WASHINGTON — The first readings from American data-collection flights over the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan show that the worst contamination has not spread beyond the 19-mile range of highest concern established by Japanese authorities.
But another day of frantic efforts to cool nuclear fuel in the troubled reactors and in the plant’s spent-fuel pools resulted in little or no progress, according to United States government officials.
Japanese officials said they would continue those efforts, but were also racing to restore electric power to the site to get equipment going again, leaving open the question of why that effort did not begin days ago, at the first signs that the critical backup cooling systems for the reactors had failed.
The data was collected by the Aerial Measuring System, among the most sophisticated devices rushed to Japan by the Obama administration in an effort to help contain a nuclear crisis that a top American nuclear official said Thursday could go on for weeks.
Strapped onto a plane and a helicopter that the United States flew over the site, with Japanese permission, the equipment took measurements that showed harmful radiation in the immediate vicinity of the plant — a much heavier dose than the trace levels of radioactive particles that make up the atmospheric plume covering a much wider area.
While the findings were reassuring in the short term, the United States declined to back away from its warning to Americans there to stay at least 50 miles from the plant, setting up a far larger perimeter than the Japanese government had established. American officials did not release specific radiation readings.
American officials said their biggest worry was that a frenetic series of efforts by the Japanese military to get water into four of the plant’s six reactors — including using water cannons and firefighting helicopters that dropped water but appeared to largely miss their targets — showed few signs of working.
“This is something that will likely take some time to work through, possibly weeks, as eventually you remove the majority of the heat from the reactors and then the spent fuel pool,” said Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, briefing reporters at the White House.
The effort by the Japanese to hook some electric power back up to the plant did not begin until Thursday and even if they succeed, it is unclear whether the cooling systems, in reactor buildings battered by a tsunami and then torn apart by hydrogen explosions, survived the crisis in good enough shape to be useful.
“What you are seeing are desperate efforts — just throwing everything at it in hopes something will work,” said one American official with long nuclear experience who would not speak for attribution. “Right now this is more prayer than plan.”
On Thursday, President Obama said that the crisis had convinced him to order the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a comprehensive review of the safety of nuclear plants in the United States.
After a day in which American and Japanese officials gave radically different assessments of the danger from the nuclear plant, the two governments tried on Thursday to join forces.
Experts met in Tokyo to compare notes. The United States, with Japanese permission, began to put the intelligence-collection aircraft over the site, in hopes of gaining a view for Washington as well as its allies in Tokyo that did not rely on the announcements of officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates Fukushima Daiichi.
American officials say they suspect that the company has consistently underestimated the risk and moved too slowly to contain the damage.
Aircraft normally used to monitor North Korea’s nuclear weapons activities — a Global Hawk drone and U-2 spy planes — were flying missions over the reactor, trying to help the Japanese government map out its response to last week’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the tsunami that followed and now the nuclear disaster.
President Obama made an unscheduled stop at the Japanese Embassy to sign a condolence book, writing, “My heart goes out to the people of Japan during this enormous tragedy.” He added, “Because of the strength and wisdom of its people, we know that Japan will recover, and indeed will emerge stronger than ever.”
Later, he appeared in the Rose Garden at the White House to offer continued American support for the earthquake and tsunami victims, and technical help at the nuclear site.
But before the recovery can begin, the nuclear plant must be brought under control. On Friday, steam that was likely laced with radioactive particles was again rising over the plant, this time billowing from reactor No. 2, which suffered an explosion Tuesday. But Japanese authorities said they did not yet know the cause of the latest release.
American officials, meanwhile, remained fixated on the temperature readings inside that reactor and two others that had been operating until the earthquake shut them down, as well as at the plant’s spent fuel pools, looking for any signs that their high levels of heat were going down. If the fuel rods are uncovered and exposed to air, they heat up and can burst into flames, spewing radioactive elements.
So far the officials saw no signs of dropping temperatures. And the Web site of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nationsnuclear watchdog, made it clear that there were no readings at all from some critical areas. Part of the American effort, by satellites and aircraft, is to identify the hot spots, something the Japanese have not been able to do in some cases.
Critical to that effort are the “pods” flown into Japan by the Air Force over the past day. Made for quick assessments of radiation emergencies, the Aerial Measuring System is an instrument system that fits on a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft to sample air and survey the land below.
Daniel B. Poneman, the deputy secretary of energy, said at a White House briefing on Thursday that preliminary results of the initial flights “are consistent with the recommendations that came down from the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” which led to the 50-mile evacuation guideline given to American expatriates. Although the worst contamination is closer to the plant, the recommendation takes into account the possibility of shifting winds or greater emissions.
The State Department has also said it would fly out of the country any dependents of American diplomats or military personnel within the region of the plant and as far south as Tokyo. Space will be made for other Americans who cannot get a flight, it said.
Getting the Japanese to accept the American detection equipment was a delicate diplomatic maneuver, which some Japanese officials originally resisted. But as it became clear that conditions at the plant were spinning out of control, and with Japanese officials admitting they had little hard evidence about whether there was water in the cooling pools or breaches in the reactor containment structures, they began to accept more help.
The sensors on the instrument pod are good at mapping radioactive isotopes, like cesium 137, which has been detected around the nuclear plant and has a half-life of 30 years. In high doses, it can cause acute radiation sickness. Lower doses can alter cellular function, leading to an increased risk of cancer.
Cesium 137 can enter the body through many foods, including milk.
On Wednesday, when the American Embassy in Tokyo, on advice from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Americans to evacuate a radius of “approximately 50 miles” around the Fukushima plant, the recommendation was based on a specific calculation of risk of radioactive fallout in the affected area.
In a statement, the commission said the advice grew out of its assessment that projected radiation doses within the evacuation zone might exceed one rem to the body or five rems to the thyroid gland. That organ is extremely sensitive to iodine 131 — another of the deadly byproducts of nuclear fuel, this one causing thyroid cancer.
The commission says that the average American is exposed to about 0.62 rem of radiation each year from natural and manmade sources.
The American-provided instruments in Japan measure real levels of radiation on the ground. In contrast, scientists around the world have also begun to draw up forecasts of how the prevailing winds pick up the Japanese radioactive material and carry it over the Pacific in invisible plumes.
Private analysts said the United States was also probably monitoring the reactor crisis with spy satellites that can spot the heat from fires — helping it independently assess the state of the reactor complex from a distance.
Jeffrey G. Lewis, an intelligence specialist at the Monterey Institute, a research center, noted that the Japanese assessment of Reactor No. 4 at the Daiichi complex seemed to depend in part on visual surveillance by helicopter pilots.
“I’ve got to think that, if we put our best assets into answering that question, we can do better,” he said in an interview.
One main concern at No. 4 has been a fire that was burning there earlier in the week; American officials are not convinced that the fire has gone out.
American officials have also worried that the spent-fuel pool at that reactor has run dry, exposing the rods. Japanese officials, however, have concentrated much of their recent efforts on Reactor No. 3, which has been intermittently releasing radiation from what the authorities believe may be a ruptured containment vessel around the reactor. Temperatures at that reactor’s spent fuel pool are also high.
Perhaps because of the difficulties experienced Thursday trying to accurately drop water from helicopters, the Japanese military announced Friday that it was halting those efforts for at least a day.
David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and William J. Broad from New York. Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington and Hiroko Tabuchi from Tokyo.
 @  The New York Times


[They say when there is a will, there is a way, but I am sure the Nepalese Embassy didn’t have the necessary will to help us out of danger. And at this moment of time, the 50 or so evacuated people from Sendai have been taken to Tokyo via Niigata where the local people helped us immensely, and are now in Tokyo seeking shelter either on their own or asking help from the embassy for food and shelter.]

By Asish Kumar Acharya

SENDAI : Tired of job hunting and interviews, I thought of giving myself a break. I was watching a Japanese movie titled “10 Promises to My Dog”, quite a pensive movie, when a tragic movie of my own started unfurling. I have not sworn my whole life as much I did in that 3 or so minutes on the 11th of March, 2011 when the earth beneath me started grumbling vigorously!!

Underneath the table, I was watching everything fall apart in my room. Books, TV, Microwave, you name it!! Like a castle of cards destroyed by a blowing wind, everything started crumbling down. The wall opposite to the table I was hiding under had my family’s photo hanging and when I saw that crashing down, I knew that the world for me was ending then and there.

After the tremors briefly stopped, I ran out of my room and met my next door neighbour, a housewife with her year old child, both howling with fear and another 70 year old lady trembling and shouting “The big one’s here!! Collect some water! Get prepared for the worst and get ready to run away from the place as fast as possible”. You could tell from her experience that she sensed something terrible was about to unfold!

Five days have passed since that moment, and in those five days there have been around a hundred aftershocks, tsunamis and now it’s the radiation which is creating a panic situation. While the casualties are almost entirely due to the large tsunamis sweeping away cities along the coastal areas, the aftershocks are still attacking our hearts and minds reminding one that he’s still not safe.

Japan has taught me a lot, engineering and much more in these six years but all of them amount to nothing when I think about what it has taught me in these five days. You can never imagine the fact that there has not been a single traffic accident after the earthquake and tsunami and when the whole city was without any traffic signal. I cannot think of a nation where there would not be a single incident of looting even when the whole of the earthquake struck population has been left nursing empty stomachs and no idea when or if one will get food. Nor would I ever have imagined that the supermarkets would give their goods for free or for reduced prices at this time of food shortage.

Even for a very unstable government, almost as unstable as the one in my motherland, the people have faith in the fact that the government and the rescue team will do something for everyone. The faith and belief in everyone here has been very heartening and give foreigners like me in this land a lot of courage.

The prompt setup of a refuge area, arrangement of blankets, water, food, and hotlines for finding out the whereabouts of the missing people in such a short span of time after the tsunami and amidst the aftershocks were simply exemplary. An international association here in Sendai along with some foreigners residing here set up a Multilingual Support Center to spread the information and whereabouts of foreigners in Sendai that very evening. Receiving calls from all over the globe about how one’s son is, whether one’s wife is alive or not, or when the next tsunami or earthquake is hitting the city would let us know how serious the situation is right now and how the world media is portraying the whole scenario. We would have lumps in our throats receiving calls from a crying mother searching for her son and when consoling her. Keeping calm in such a scenario with zillions of heart breaking information flying around was our toughest task as multilingual volunteers.

While dealing with the calls and requests from the whole international community, we couldn’t shy from the fact that we had to find the whereabouts of the Nepalese living here as well. A couple of fellow students and me decided to get firsthand knowledge of how our countrymen were doing in Sendai by roaming around all the possible refuge centers and their apartments. A full day of research and we reached the conclusion that 120 Nepalese were safe with most taking shelter in the refuge centers.

While forwarding the gathered information to the Nepalese Embassy, we also asked them to send us the list of all the Nepalese people living here in Sendai so that we could further intensify our search. But to our misfortune we could never get such information. While working in the multilingual support centre we were trying to connect all the foreigners living here to their respective embassies. And, one by one, all the embassies were taking their countrymen to Tokyo and back home because of the risk from the radiation from the blast in the nuclear power plant in Fukushima getting larger every passing minute.

We were dealing with the Nepalese Embassy and seeking their help in the evacuation of all the Nepalese from there. While they were very efficient in providing consoling words to us, they never could act promptly enough. They said that they would send a bus with fuel just enough for a one way trip to pick all the Nepalese from Fukushima first and by the look of things, to evacuate Nepalese in Sendai it would take them some four to five days.

Bureaucracy is one thing, but in this time of emergency, when there are so many people in fatal danger, they could not even provide transportation to their citizens. It’s such a shame and you feel pity for yourself when you are left helpless by the ones you are expecting the most from, when evacuating such a large number of people. We, then, thought of trying our luck, and amidst the fuel crisis hitting the city we called all the rental bus companies one by one and got declined one after the other until next morning when we received a call from one ready to provide us with a bus to Niigata, a city in the western part of Japan far away from Fukushima, with almost no danger of radiation.

They say when there is a will, there is a way, but I am sure the Nepalese Embassy didn’t have the necessary will to help us out of danger. And at this moment of time, the 50 or so evacuated people from Sendai have been taken to Tokyo via Niigata where the local people helped us immensely, and are now in Tokyo seeking shelter either on their own or asking help from the embassy for food and shelter. Hopefully, till the situation gets better, all of them will be provided some food, lodging and more importantly safety there and the remaining people from not only Sendai but all the affected areas will be rescued without any further delay. Almost 90% of the Nepalese people in the affected areas are privately funded students with most having lost their jobs or workplaces. They need the support of the Nepalese community and the embassy badly.

I was lucky to have survived all of this with a few broken dishes and destroyed appliances. And pray that all the Nepalese here end up having no more casualty than broken dishes and destroyed appliances.

@  The Himalayan Times