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Sat 19 Mar 2011 11:30 AM

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Situation stabilises at stricken Japan nuclear plant

Gov't plans to provide up to $127bn in cheap loans to help businesses get back on their feet

Situation stabilises at stricken Japan nuclear plant
An aerial view shows the quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant in the Japanese town of Futaba, Fukushima

One of six
tsunami-crippled nuclear reactors appeared to stabilise on Saturday as
Japan raced to restore power to the stricken power plant to cool it and
prevent a greater catastrophe.

Engineers reported some rare
success after fire trucks sprayed water for about three hours on reactor
No.3, widely considered the most dangerous at the ravaged Fukushima
Daiichi nuclear complex because of its use of highly toxic plutonium.

"The situation there is stabilising somewhat," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference.

Engineers
earlier attached a power cable to the outside of the mangled plant in a
desperate attempt to get water pumps going that would cool overheating
fuel rods and prevent a deadly radiation leak.

They hope electricity will flow by Sunday to four reactors in the complex about 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

Edano
said radiation levels in milk from a Fukushima farm about 30 km (18
miles) from the plant, and spinach grown in Ibaraki, a neighboring
prefecture, exceeded limits set by the government, the first known case
of contamination since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that touched
off the crisis.

But he said these higher radiation levels still posed no risk to human health.

Prime
Minister Naoto Kan, facing Japan's biggest disaster since World War
Two, sounded out the opposition about forming a government of national
unity to deal with a crisis that has left nearly 7,000 people confirmed
killed and turned whole towns into waterlogged, debris-strewn
wastelands.

Another 10,700 people
are missing, many feared dead in the disaster, which has sent a shock
through global financial markets, with major economies joining forces to
calm the Japanese yen.

Officials connected a power cable to the No. 2 reactor and planned to test power in reactors No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 on Sunday.

Working
inside a 20 km (12 mile) evacuation zone at Fukushima, nearly 300
engineers got a second diesel generator attached to reactor No. 6
working, the nuclear safety agency said. They used the power to restart
cooling pumps on No. 5.

"TEPCO has
connected the external transmission line with the receiving point of
the plant and confirmed that electricity can be supplied," the plant's
operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, said in a statement.

Nearly
1.5 km (a mile) of cable is being laid before engineers try to crank up
the coolers at reactor No.2, followed by numbers 1, 3 and 4 this
weekend, company officials said.

"If
they are successful in getting the cooling infrastructure up and
running, that will be a significant step forward in establishing
stability," said Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at U.S.-based
FocalPoint Consulting Group.

If
that fails, one option is to bury the sprawling 40-year-old plant in
sand and concrete to prevent a catastrophic radiation release. The
method was used at the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, scene of the world's
worst nuclear reactor disaster.

Underlining authorities' desperation, fire
trucks sprayed water overnight in a crude tactic to cool reactor No.3,
considered the most critical because of its use of mixed oxides, or mox,
containing both uranium and highly toxic plutonium.

Japan
has raised the severity rating of the nuclear crisis to level 5 from 4
on the seven-level INES international scale, putting it on a par with
the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. Some experts say
it is more serious.

Chernobyl, in Ukraine, was a 7 on that scale.

The
operation to avert large-scale radiation has overshadowed the
humanitarian crisis caused by the 9.0-magnitude quake and 10-meter
(33-foot) tsunami.

Some 390,000 people, many elderly, are homeless, living in shelters in near-freezing temperatures in northeastern coastal areas.

Food,
water, medicine and heating fuel are in short supply and a Worm Moon,
when the full moon is closest to Earth, could bring floods to devastated
areas.

"Everything is gone,
including money," said Tsukasa Sato, a 74-year-old barber with a heart
condition, as he warmed his hands in front of a stove at a shelter for
the homeless.

Health officials and
the UN atomic watchdog have said radiation levels in the capital Tokyo
were not harmful. But the city has seen an exodus of tourists,
expatriates and many Japanese, who fear a blast of radioactive material.

"I'm
leaving because my parents are terrified. I personally think this will
turn out to be the biggest paper tiger the world has ever seen," said
Luke Ridley, 23, from London as he sat at Narita international airport
using his laptop.

Officials asked
people in the 20 km "take cover" zone to follow some directives when
going outside: Drive, don't walk. Wear a mask. Wear long sleeves. Don't
go out in the rain.

Though there has been alarm around the world, experts say dangerous levels of radiation are unlikely to spread to other nations.

The
U.S. government said "minuscule" amounts of radiation were detected in
California consistent with a release from Japan's damaged facility, but
there were no levels of concern.

Amid
their distress, Japanese took time to laud the 279 nuclear plant
workers toiling in the nuclear plant's wreckage, wearing masks, goggles
and protective suits sealed by duct tape.

"My
eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing," Kazuya
Aoki, a safety official at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety
Agency, told Reuters.

The Group of Seven rich nations succeeded in
calming global financial markets in a rare concerted intervention to
restrain a soaring yen -- the first such joint intervention since the
group came to the aid of the newly launched euro in 2000.

Japan's Nikkei share index recovered some lost ground by the end of a week which wiped $350 billion off market capitalization.

The
government plans to provide up to 10 trillion yen ($127 billion) in
cheap loans to help businesses get back on their feet. The plight of the
homeless worsened following a cold snap that brought heavy snow to the
worst-affected areas, the Nikkei daily reported.

But
the immediate problems remained huge for many people. Nearly 290,000
households in the north still have no electricity and about 940,000 lack
running water.

Aid groups say most victims are getting help, but there are pockets of acute suffering.

"We've
seen children suffering with the cold, and lacking really basic items
like food and clean water," Stephen McDonald of Save the Children said
in a statement.

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