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Fire At Japanese Nuke Plant, Spike In Radiation

March 16, 2011

Japanese Earthquake And Tsunami Updates

UPDATE: Wednesday, 16 March 2011 6:10am CST

Japanese authorities have been desperately trying to prevent an environmental catastrophe at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex some 140 miles north of Tokyo. 

Workers at the facility have been scrambling to keep the radioactive cores of the reactors from evaporating, which would lead to overheating and possibly a dangerous meltdown.

The tsunami that hit Japan following the devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake knocked out the backup diesel generators required to cool the facility’s fuel rods, triggering the current crisis.

In the latest in a series of setbacks, Japan ordered workers to withdraw from the complex on Wednesday due to a spike in radiation levels.  The spike was apparently the result of a release of pressure that had accumulated in the No. 2 reactor, officials said.

Steam and pressure build up in the reactors as workers frantically scramble to cool the fuel rods.  This leads to controlled pressure releases through vents and, at times, uncontrolled explosions.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the workers had no alternative but to withdraw from the most dangerous areas.

“The workers cannot carry out even minimal work at the plant now,” said Edano.

“Because of the radiation risk we are on standby.”

Just hours before the Fukushima workers were evacuated, another fire broke out at the facility’s No. 4 reactor, sending low levels of radiation as far away as Tokyo, and generating fresh fears that the crisis may be deepening.

Hajimi Motujuku, a spokesman for the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said the outer housing of the containment vessel at the No. 4 unit erupted in flames early Wednesday.

However, Japan’s nuclear safety agency said that fire and smoke could no longer be seen at Unit 4, although it was unable to confirm that the blaze had been put out.

Officials are also considering having helicopters dump water onto the facility’s No. 3 reactor in a desperate effort to cool its fuel rods.  An earlier explosion had damaged the reactor’s roof.

However, Edano spoke cautiously about such a move, warning of the risks involved.

“It’s not so simple that everything will be resolved by pouring in water. We are trying to avoid creating other problems,” he said.

“We are actually supplying water from the ground, but supplying water from above involves pumping lots of water and that involves risk. We also have to consider the safety of the helicopters above.”

By late Wednesday local time, radiation levels had decreased, although it was not clear whether workers had been allowed back in.

A core team of 70 experts have been working around the clock to contain the crisis, rotating in and out of the facility to minimize their radiation exposure.

Meanwhile, officials in Ibaraki prefecture, just south of Fukushima, said radiation levels were about 300 times normal levels late Wednesday morning, the Associated Press reported.  While those levels are unhealthy for prolonged periods, they are far from lethal.

Millions of people have been left with little food, water or heat in the aftermath of the quake.  Some half a million people are now in temporary shelters, while more than 11,000 people are officially listed as dead or missing. 

Most officials expect that number to rise.

In an exceptionally rare address, Emperor Akihito, 77, expressed his condolences and encouraged the nation not to give up.

“It is important that each of us shares the difficult days that lie ahead,” said Akihito, for whom Japan’s citizens have tremendous respect.

“I pray that we will all take care of each other and overcome this tragedy.”

He also expressed his concerns about the ongoing nuclear crisis.

“With the help of those involved I hope things will not get worse,” he said.

The government has ordered some 140,000 people in the vicinity of the nuclear complex to stay indoors. Slight amounts of radiation were detected in Tokyo, triggering a panicked rush to purchase food and water.

There are six reactors at the Fukushima facility.  Reactors 1, 2 and 3 automatically shut down when the quake hit, but have each been rocked by explosions in the following days.

Units 4, 5 and 6 were not operating at the time of the quake, but still have nuclear fuel that must be kept cool.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency estimated that 70 percent of the rods have been damaged at the No. 1 reactor, while Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that 33 percent of the fuel rods at the No. 2 reactor were damaged.  The cores of both reactors are thought to have partially melted.

“We don’t know the nature of the damage,” said Minoru Ohgoda, spokesman for Japan’s nuclear safety agency.

“It could be either melting, or there might be some holes in them,” the AP quoted him as saying.

Scores of flights to Japan have been cancelled or rerouted as air travelers avoid Tokyo out of fears of radiation exposure.  On Wednesday, France urged its citizens in Tokyo to either leave Japan altogether, or move to the southern part of the country.

UPDATE: Tuesday, 15 March 2011 12:05pm CST

The US Geological Survey (USGS) has raised the magnitude of the deadly earthquake that struck offshore northern Japan on Friday to 9.0 from 8.9. Japanese authorities have also arrived separately at the same measurement. Revised measurements of magnitude are common after earthquakes as recorded data is analyzed and refined.

“This 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,” Reuters is reporting from a USGS statement.

The updated magnitude of the quake to 9.0 reveals the quake was 1.5 times more powerful than the previous measurement of 8.9. This makes the quake the fourth largest in the world since 1900 behind the magnitude 9.1 Sumatra quake in 2004, AP reports.

Updated death toll estimates are 3,373 people dead and 6,746 others unaccounted for in Japan from the immediate quake and resulting tsunami, Local media reports and estimated 530,000 evacuees are now recovering in approximately 2,600 shelters near quake-hit areas.

Food, drinking water, medicine and fuel shortages are reported in quake-hit areas. Communications and other infrastructure disruptions are being felt as rescue and recovery efforts continue, Xinhua News Agency is reporting.

UPDATE: Monday, 14 March 2011 11:50am CST

NASA Imagery Of Japan Quake – http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/japanquake/index.html

UPDATE: Monday, 14 March 2011 6:05am CST

The US Geological Survey (USGS) claims the Friday’s 8.9 magnitude quake along the northern coast of Japan has moved the island nation eastward by an estimated 8 feet. The tectonic shift was a result of “thrust faulting” along the boundary of the Pacific and North America plates, according to the Paul Earle of the USGS.

The North American plate is pushed by the Pacific plate at the rate of about 3.3 inches per year, however an earthquake large enough can provide a shove that is able to displace the plates with dramatic results. Similar movements had been recorded for the recent Indonesian and Chilean earthquakes, Earle continued.

“With an earthquake this large, you can get these huge ground shifts,” Earle said. “On the actual fault you can get 65 feet of relative movement, on the two sides of the fault.”

A tsunami resulted from this earthquake that inundated populated areas of Japan’s northeastern coast, washing away anything along low-lying areas in what Prime Minister Naoto Kan said was an “unprecedented national disaster.”

A 9.1 magnitude quake in December 2004 near the coast of Sumatra caused a tsunami that killed an estimated 228,000 people. In February 2010, an 8.8 quake off the coast of Chile killed more than 500.

No similar ground shift was noticed from the 7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti last year. “A magnitude 7.0 is much smaller than the earthquake that just happened in Japan,” he said. “We’ve had aftershocks (in Japan) larger than the Haiti earthquake.”

“We know that one GPS station moved, and we have seen a map from GSI (Geospatial Information Authority) in Japan showing the pattern of shift over a large area is consistent with about that much shift of the land mass,” explained Kenneth Hudnut, a USGS geophysicist told CNN.

NASA scientist Richard Gross reported that the earth’s rotation was also affected. Initial estimates show the rotation of the planet has shortened by approximately 1.8 microseconds (a microsecond is one millionth of a second), and also shifted Earth’s figure axis by about 6.5 inches. These are not time scales that would be noticeable by people but can be read by satellites, Gross told CBS News.

UPDATE: Saturday, 12 March 2011 6:40am CST

Although imperceptible to humans, days will be a tiny bit shorter after Friday’s magnitude 8.9 earthquake off the coast of Japan.

NASA geophysicist Richard Gross calculated that the Earth’s rotation accelerated by 1.6 microseconds because of the shift in mass caused by the massive quake — the fifth strongest since 1900.

That change in rotation speed is slightly more than the one caused by last year’s earthquake in Chile.   However, an even larger earthquake in Sumatra in 2004 caused a 6.8-microsecond shortening of the day, the Associated Press reported.

UPDATE: Friday, 11 March 2011 1:35pm CST

A 6.2 magnitude quake has struck the mountainous Nagano area in Central Japan, apparently on a different faultline than the 8.9 magnitude quake.

Also, CNN reports that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, roughly 160 miles north of Tokyo, “remains at a high temperature” because it “cannot cool down.”

Japan’s Kyodo News Agency reports that Trade Minister Banri Kaieda said that a small radiation leak could occur at the plant.

UPDATE: Friday, 11 March 2011 12:50pm CST

During a press conference earlier this afternoon, President Barack Obama said that he told Japanese Prime Minister Naota Kan that the US is ready to offer whatever help they can as the Asian country attempts to recover from this morning’s massive earthquake.

Also, according to Reuters, Obama told reporters that “his administration is closely monitoring the tsunami threat to the United States” and that the Prime Minister told him that there was currently no leak at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

UPDATE: Friday, 11 March 2011 12:35pm CST

As reported earlier, an estimated 3,000 people were evacuated from the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

According to Reuters, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano had stated that a cooling system for a nuclear reactor was not working, and the issue appeared to be under control.

Now CNN.com has posted an update to the story, and according to Edano, the reactor at the plant “remains at a high temperature” and that they have been unable to get it to “cool down.”

“There is no radioactive leakage at this moment outside of the facility,” he said. “At this moment, there is no danger to the environment.” However, the CNN.com Wire Staff reports that the radiation level was rising in a turbine building within the plant.

UPDATE: Friday, 11 March 2011 12:15pm CST:

Reports of the tsunami’s impact on Hawaii and the West Coast of the US mainland are trickling in. The Associated Press says that, despite reports of flooding on Maui and watery roadways on Hawaii’s big island, the post-earthquake waves “didn’t immediately cause major damage after devastating Japan and sparking evacuations throughout the Pacific.”

“Initial reports from U.S. civil defense officials and residents of coastal communities suggested the force of the tsunami, a giant wall of water, had dissipated as it sped across the Pacific Ocean toward North America,” Peter Henderson of Reuters said. “Tidal surges in the Hawaiian island chain were generally little higher than normal, officials said, and there were no reports of injuries or severe inland property damage.”

However, as James Song and Mark Niesse wrote, “Scientists and officials warned that the first tsunami waves are not always the strongest and said residents along the coast should watch for strong currents and heed calls for evacuation.”

“The tsunami warning is not over,” Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie said, according to the AP. “We are seeing significant adverse activity, particularly on Maui and the Big Island. By no means are we clear in the rest of the state as well.”

At 8:30am CST, President Barack Obama received a briefing on this morning’s earthquake and the resulting tsunamis, as he spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate via telephone and met with Chief of Staff Bill Daley, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security John Brennan, National Security Advisory Tom Donilon, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, Senior Advisor David Plouffe, Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco, National Security Staff Senior Director for Resilience Richard Reed and National Security Staff Director Asian Affairs Daniel Russel in person.

According to a White House media advisory released this afternoon, “The senior officials provided the President with an update on the evolving situation stemming from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan early this morning including the actions being taken to assist U.S. states and territories that could be affected by the tsunami, as the President directed earlier this morning ““ as well as the work being done to be prepared to assist the people of Japan.”

“The US government continues to monitor the situation closely throughout the Pacific region,” the press release added. “To support potentially impacted areas in the United States, the federal government remains in close contact and coordination with state and local officials, and stands ready to support them. The government’s message to the public is simple: listen to the instructions of state and local officials. We urge everyone in the regions who could be impacted to listen to a NOAA Weather Radio and their local news to monitor for updates and directions provided by their local officials.”

According to Patricia Zengerle and David Morgan of Reuters, “The U.S. Defense Department was preparing American forces in the Pacific to provide relief after the quake, which generated a tsunami that headed across the Pacific Ocean past Hawaii and toward the west coast of the U.S. mainland.”

To put into perspective just how severe an earthquake this was, consider this Twitter post from USGS Nebraska: “The Richter scale is exponential, logarithmic. An 8.9 like today’s is about 8,000 times stronger than the recent serious quake in New Zealand.”

That earthquake, which hit the city of Christchurch on February 22, was 6.3 in magnitude. There are 166 confirmed deaths as a result of that disaster, and as reported by CNN.com, the Kyodo News Agency, and now by Reuters as well, the death toll for Friday morning’s earthquake is expected to surpass 1,000.

UPDATE: Friday, 11 March 2011 11:20am CST:

CNN.com’s live blog is reporting that a dam in Fukushima prefecture had broken and that “scores” of homes in the region had been washed way. They also say that the Defense Ministry has confirmed that approximately 1,800 homes have been destroyed there.

They also state that the Kyodo News Agency has reported that they expect the death toll from Friday morning’s 8.9 magnitude earthquake to surpass 1,000.

UPDATE: Friday, 11 March 2011 10:50am CST:

Russell Goldman and Lyneka Little of ABC News report that, in addition to Oregon, residents in northern California have “reported seeing the tell-tale sign of an impending tsunami–the waterline quickly withdrawing from the beach prior to large incoming waves.”

In an article posted at 8:19 Pacific Time, the Los Angeles Times’ L.A. Now blog reported that “Southern California beaches are expected to be hit within a half-hour with unusual ripple currents” resulting from the earthquake-caused tsunami.

“Most beaches are likely to see 1- to 3-foot waves starting around 8:30 am [local time], said Bill Patzert, an oceanographer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada-Flintridge. Unlike typical waves, the force of the current is expected to build slowly and could last up to a half-hour,” they added.

Furthermore, Japan’s National Police have told CNN.com that “at least 133 people were killed, 722 were injured and 530 were missing” following the earthquake, in addition to the 200 to 300 bodies that were discovered “in the coastal city of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture following the subsequent tsunami that struck that area. The death toll is likely to rise.”

According to Reuters, tsunami warnings have been lifted for Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, and alerts are no longer in effect for Australia, New Zealand and Guam.

UPDATE: Friday, 11 March 2011 10:00am CST:

Jaymes Song and Mark Niesse of the AP are now reporting that the first tsunami waves have reached the US mainland, with high water reaching Port Orford, Oregon at 7:30am PST on Friday. Residents living near the coast of Oregon, California, and Washington had previously been evacuated. An approximately five-foot wave had also been spotted at Shemya in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, Song and Niesse said.

Andrew Marshall of Reuters is reporting that tsunami warnings had been lifted for Guam, Indonesia, and Taiwan. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reports that warnings remained in effect for Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru.

Reuters is also reporting, via their live blog, that NHK is confirming that the death toll in Japan had now risen above 300, with several hundred others missing.

CNN.com had confirmed that “a spokesman for the U.S. military bases in Japan said all service members were accounted for and there were no reports of damage to installations or ships.”

AP Reporters Jaymes Song and Mark Niesse now report that the tsunami waves that hit the beaches of Hawaii early Friday morning “didn’t cause any major damage.”

Finally, Jesse McKinley and Timothy Williams of the New York Times are reporting that waves from the tsunami “were projected to arrive at the Northern California coast at about 7:15 a.m. local time, and hit the San Francisco Bay Area at about 8 a.m., the National Weather Service said.”

“Officials in Southern California closed beaches as a precaution, prohibiting swimming, surfing and fishing off the coast,” McKinley and Williams said. “Experts said that they did not expect flooding and did not call for mandatory evacuations. But they warned that there could be large waves and unusual changes in the currents for several hours.”

“Several schools in the beach areas also planned to close Friday,” the New York Times writers continued, adding that authorities told them that wave surges “could reach three to seven feet along the California, Oregon and Washington coasts” and three-feet in Southern California.

UPDATE: Friday, 11 March 2011 9:35am CST:

A televised CNN report states that all US military personnel in Japan have been accounted for.

Reuters reporter Ross Chainey, via their live earthquake coverage blog, is reporting that White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley “says fears about the tsunami on Hawaii and California seem to have passed,” and that Bristol University Seismology Professor George Helffrich tells BBC News “the speed at which the tsunami waves move across the ocean is around 1km every four seconds.”

ABC News reporters Akiko Fujita, Leezel Tanglao, and Jessica Hopper are reporting that the quake itself has been called the fifth largest ever recorded by the USGS. They note that the tremors lasted five minutes–far longer than the devastating 1994 earthquake in Northridge, California, which had a duration of just six seconds–and bent the famed Tokyo tower landmark.

As of 9:20am CST, Canada had issued tsunami advisories for parts of British Columbia, according to Reuters.

UPDATE Friday, 11 March 2011 09:15am CST:

ABC News Channel 25 out of Waco, Texas is reporting that the tsunami, which initially hit Hawaii approximately two hours ago, had caused damage to docks, and that the waves are “leaving fish in parking lots near the beach.”

They add that a Tsunami Warning is in effect for coastal areas of California, Oregon, and Alaska–meaning that residents in those areas should immediately move to safer locations inland and towards higher ground–and that several other west coast areas were under a less-serious Tsunami Advisory.

According to CNN.com, the earthquake’s epicenter was located approximately 231 miles away from Tokyo, and between 60,000 and 70,000 people were being evacuated to shelters in the Sendai area. Fires had been reported in 80 different areas, the CNN Wire Staff added, and more than 20,000 people were left stranded at the Narita and Haneda airports.

UPDATE Friday, 11 March 2011 08:55am CST:

The Associated Press (AP) is reporting that death toll of a massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan early Friday morning is now in the hundreds.

According to the AP’s Malcolm Foster, “Police said 200 to 300 bodies were found in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai. Another 88 were confirmed killed and 349 were missing. The death toll was likely to continue climbing given the scale of the disaster.”

Meanwhile, according to AP reporters Jaymes Song and Mark Niesse, 3-foot high tsunami waves from the earthquake had begun hitting the Hawaii islands of Oahu and Kauai early Friday morning. Song and Niesse now report that waves nearing 6 feet high had been recorded on the island of Maui, and that Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist said that it did not appear that they would cause “major” damage, but that he was positive there would be “some damage” there.

“Roadways and beaches were empty as the tsunamis struck the state, which had hours to prepare,” Song and Niesse said. “Residents in coastal areas of Hawaii were sent to refuge areas at community centers and schools while tourists in Waikiki were moved to higher floors of their high-rise hotels.”

Furthermore, they report that “Waves are predicted to hit the western coast of the United States between 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. EST Friday” and that evacuations had been ordered “in parts of Washington and Oregon.”

“The US Geological Survey [USGS] said the 2:46 p.m. quake was a magnitude 8.9, the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since officials began keeping records in the late 1800s, and one of the biggest ever recorded in the world,” Foster said, adding that more than 50 aftershocks had been recorded.

In the wake of the disaster, American President Barack Obama pledged his aid to Japan.

According to AP reporter Julie Pace, Obama has declared that the United States “stands ready to help” those affected by the earthquake, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be ready to help those in Hawaii, as well as any other state ultimately affected by the tsunamis.

“FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said tsunami warnings and watches have been issued for the U.S. territories of Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, and coastal areas in Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington,” Pace said. “Fugate urged people living in those areas to monitor their local news for instructions from their state and local officials, and evacuate if ordered to do so. And the Coast Guard said it was making preparations to provide support where necessary.”

As reported previously, Bloomberg writers Stuart Biggs and Aaron Sheldrick said that the earthquake “shook buildings across Tokyo and unleashed a tsunami as high as 10 meters, engulfing towns along the northern coast.”

Furthermore, Tokyo Electric Power told the Bloomberg reporters that over 4 million homes were without power, and in a nationally televised briefing in the wake of the disaster, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that “major damage” had occurred in an area located north of Tokyo.

In a live blog updating the situation in real time, Mark Kolmar of Reuters posted that the Kyodo news agency is reporting that “8,000 defense force troops have been dispatched for quake relief.”

The US State Department has issued a travel alert, noting that airports in Tokyo were currently closed and asking all Americans to avoid non-essential travel to Japan, Pace is reporting. The agency added that public transportation was also closed in Tokyo and interrupted in many other locales, and that US citizens currently in Japan should “contact family and friends in the United States to confirm their well-being at the earliest opportunity.”

Meanwhile, many other nations are continuing to brace themselves for the resulting tsunamis.

“The Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea were among more than 20 countries bracing for a possible tsunami, after the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center raised an alert,” Biggs and Sheldrick had warned earlier Friday, adding that AP reports stated that “The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center issued a warning for the entire U.S. west coast.”

Roig and Barut said that the tsunami warnings also extended from Mexico south through the Pacific coast of South America, and Kolmar had also posted that warnings had been issued for “the coastal areas of California and Oregon from Point Concepcion, California to the Oregon-Washington border; the coastal areas of Alaska from Amchitka Pass, Alaska (125 miles W of Adak) to Attu, Alaska; the coastal areas of California from the California-Mexico border to Point Concepcion, California; and the coastal areas of Washington, British Columbia and Alaska from the Oregon-Washington border to Amchitka Pass, Alaska (125 miles W of Adak).”

As they have with other disasters in the past, Google has established an online “Person Finder” for those affected by the earthquake and tsunami. According to Benny Evangelista of the San Francisco Chronicle, “The Person Finder page can be found at http://japan.person-finder.appspot.com/ and it is available both in English and Japanese.”

Earlier today, Reuters had reported that residents near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant had been told to evacuate. They have since learned from Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano that a cooling system for a nuclear reactor was not working.

Reuters is also reporting, via the Kyodo news agency reports that a ship carrying a crew of 100 people had been swept away by the tsunami. More details on that when they become available.

Image 1: Image of Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant Unit 1 before and after explosion. Credit: Wikipedia   

Image 2: Ground rupture caused by the Sendai Earthquake 2011. Credit: Danny Choo/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)  

Image 3: Map of the Senadai Earthquake 2011 Credit: Wikipedia   

Image 4: These images show the effects of the tsunami on Japan’s coastline. The image on the left was taken on Sept. 5, 2010; the image on the right was taken on March 12, 2011, one day after an earthquake and resulting tsunami struck the island nation. Credit: German Aerospace Center (DLR)/Rapid Eye  

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