Font Size

- Aa +

Fri 18 Mar 2011 01:18 PM

Font Size

- Aa +

Japan weighs need to bury crippled nuclear plant

Engineers concede that burying reactor in sand and concrete may be needed to avoid disaster

Japan weighs need to bury crippled nuclear plant

Japanese
engineers conceded on Friday that burying a crippled nuclear plant in
sand and concrete may be a last resort to prevent a catastrophic
radiation release, the method used to seal huge leakages from Chernobyl
in 1986.

But they still hoped to solve
the crisis by fixing a power cable to at least two reactors to restart
water pumps needed to cool overheating nuclear fuel rods. Workers also
sprayed water on the No.3 reactor, the most critical of the plant's six.

It
was the first time the facility operator had acknowledged burying the
sprawling complex was possible, a sign that piecemeal actions such as
dumping water from military helicopters or scrambling to restart cooling
pumps may not work.

"It is not
impossible to encase the reactors in concrete. But our priority right
now is to try and cool them down first," an official from the plant
operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, told a news conference.

As
Japan entered its second week after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and
10-meter (33-foot) tsunami flattened coastal cities and killed thousands
of people, the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl looked far
from over.

Millions of people in
Tokyo continued to work from home, some fearing a blast of radioactive
material from the complex, 240 km (150 miles) to the north, although
prevailing winds would likely carry contaminated smoke or steam away
from the densely populated city to dissipate over the Pacific Ocean.

Radiation
levels recorded in areas near the plant did not pose an immediate risk
to human health, said Michael O'Leary, the World Health Organisation's
representative in China.

"At this
point, there is still no evidence that there's been significant
radiation spread beyond the immediate zone of the reactors themselves,"
O'Leary told reporters in Beijing.

Japan's nuclear disaster has triggered global alarm and reviews of safety at atomic power plants around the world.

President
Barack Obama, who stressed the United States did not expect harmful
radiation to reach its shores, said he had ordered a comprehensive
review of domestic nuclear plants and pledged Washington's support for
Japan.

The Group of Seven rich
nations, stepping in together to calm global financial markets after a
tumultuous week, agreed to join in rare concerted intervention to
restrain a soaring yen.

The top US nuclear regulator said it could take weeks to reverse the overheating of fuel rods at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

"This
is something that will take some time to work through, possibly weeks,
as you eventually remove the majority of the heat from the reactors and
then the spent-fuel pools," Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman
Gregory Jaczko told a news conference at the White House.

Yukiya
Amano, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA), called the crisis "grave and serious" and urged Japan's prime
minister to release better information after arriving in Tokyo on Friday
with a team of four experts.

"They are racing against time to cool it down
and then to contain it. It is worse than it was at the beginning, but I
don't know compared with yesterday," he said, adding that the experts
would travel to the reactors on Saturday or Sunday.

Graham
Andrew, his senior aide, said helicopters used to dump water on the
plant had shown exposure to small amounts of radiation. "The situation
remains very serious, but there has been no significant worsening since
yesterday," Andrew said.

The
nuclear agency said the radiation level at the plant was as high as 20
millisieverts per hour. The limit for the workers was 100 per hour.

Even
if engineers restore power at the plant, it was not clear the pumps
would work as they may have been damaged in the earthquake, tsunami or
subsequent explosions and there are fears of the electricity shorting
and causing another blast.

Japan's
nuclear agency spokesman, Hidehiko Nishiyama, said it was also unclear
how effective spraying water on the reactors from helicopters had been
on Thursday. The priority was to get water into the spent-fuel pools, he
said.

"We have to reduce the heat
somehow and may use seawater," he told a news conference. "We need to
get the reactors back online as soon as possible and that's why we're
trying to restore power to them."

Asked
about burying the reactors in sand and concrete, he said: "That
solution is in the back of our minds, but we are focused on cooling the
reactors down."

Jaczko said the cooling pool for spent-fuel rods at the complex's reactor No.4 may have run dry and another was leaking.

An
official at the plant operator said he expected power to be restored at
its most troubled and damaged reactors - No.3 and No.4 - by Sunday.
Engineers are trying to reconnect power to the least damaged reactors
first.

The
US dollar surged more than two yen to 81.80 after the G7's pledge to
intervene, leaving behind a record low of 76.25 hit on Thursday.

Japan's
Nikkei share index ended up 2.7 percent, recouping some of the week's
stinging losses. It has lost 10.2 percent this week.

US
markets, which had tanked earlier in the week on the back of the
crisis, rebounded on Thursday but investors were not convinced the
advance would last.

The yen has
seen steady buying since the earthquake, as Japanese and international
investors closed long positions in higher-yielding, riskier assets such
as the Australian dollar, funded by cheap borrowing in the Japanese
currency.

Expectations that
Japanese insurers and companies would repatriate billions of dollars in
overseas funds to pay for a reconstruction bill that is expected to be
much costlier than the one that followed the Kobe earthquake in 1995
also have helped boost the yen.

The plight of hundreds of thousands left
homeless by the earthquake and tsunami worsened following a cold snap
that brought heavy snow to worst-affected areas.

Supplies
of water, heating oil and fuel are low at evacuation centers, where
many survivors wait bundled in blankets. Many elderly lack proper
medical supplies. Food is often rationed.

The
government said on Friday it was considering moving some of the
hundreds of thousands of evacuees to parts of the country unscathed by
the devastation.

About 850,000
households in the north were still without electricity in near-freezing
weather, Tohuku Electric Power Co. said, and the government said at
least 1.6 million households lacked running water.

The
National Police Agency said on Friday it had confirmed 6,539 deaths
from the quake and tsunami disaster, exceeding 6,434 who died after the
Kobe earthquake in 1995. But 10,354 people are still missing.

The
government has told everyone living within 20 km (12 miles) of the
plant to evacuate, and advised people within 30 km (18 miles) to stay
indoors.

The US embassy in Tokyo
has urged citizens living within 80 km (50 miles) of the Daiichi plant
to evacuate or remain indoors "as a precaution," while Britain's foreign
office urged citizens "to consider leaving the area." Other nations
have urged nationals in Japan to leave the country or head south.

At
its worst, radiation in Tokyo has reached 0.809 microsieverts per hour
this week, 10 times below what a person would receive if exposed to a
dental x-ray. On Thursday and Friday, radiation levels were within
average levels.

Tokyo's 13 million
residents were warned on Thursday to prepare for a possible large-scale
blackout but the government later said there was no need for one. Still,
many firms are voluntarily reducing power and trains are reducing
services.

For all the latest energy and oil news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.