Nuclear Alert Level Raised at Fukushima Daiichi

Mar 18, 2011, 08:48 by David Hope

The nuclear alert level near the crippled nuclear plant in Japan was raised from four to five on a seven-point scale, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Friday.

Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned in Tokyo that time was a concern in the battle to stabilize the facility, rocked by explosions and fires triggered by last week's 9-magnitude earthquake.

"This is a very grave and serious accident," Amano said after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. "So it is important that the international community, including the IAEA, handles this jointly. Especially, cooling (the reactors) is extremely important, so I think this is a race against time."

The change in the level moves the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant two levels below the 1986 Chernobyl disaster on the international danger scale for nuclear accidents.

Amano said he hoped new testing would help reassure the Japanese public "by having an international authority carry out its own observations, in addition to such activities by Japan," The Daily Telegraph reported.

Kan vowed to provide more information about the nuclear crisis Friday, Kyodo News reported.

"I want to promise that we will disclose as much information as possible to the IAEA, as well as to the people of the world," Kan said.

Additionally, Japan will enhance its radiation monitoring and other developments concerning the Fukushima plant, Kan said.

Amano said an IAEA team will begin monitoring radiation at the site "in a couple of days." The four-member team of nuclear experts will monitor radiation in Tokyo before going to the plant, he said.

The IAEA chief also said he hoped the team can provide information useful to the international community, Kyodo said.

Meanwhile, workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant worked Friday to re-power the cooling systems in damaged reactors to prevent massive radiation leaks.

While an extraordinary mission to fill the reactors' pools holding spent fuel rods with water prevented rods from further overheating, engineers also sought to restore the cooling systems, with electricity lines brought in from outside power lines, the government said.

The focus is on preventing the damaged fuel rod pools in the plant's six reactors from falling below required levels, which would expose the rods and, in turn, lead to a chain-reaction that can trigger massive radioactive leaks.

Damage to the reactors includes loss of their roofs due to hydrogen explosions and fires, making the task of preventing radiation from escaping into the atmosphere more difficult.

Japan's northeast region, where Fukushima is located, was hit last Friday by a 9-magnitude earthquake, the world's fifth strongest ever, followed by a tsunami of immeasurable strength and destructive capability. The disasters damaged the plant and flooded the reactors' critical cooling systems.

Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said radiation readings at the plant had been following a downward path through Friday morning, based on measurements taken about a kilometer (0.6 mile) west of the No. 2 reactor after ground water spraying from trucks, Kyodo News reported.

The New York Times reported Thursday the first readings collected by U.S. flights over the plant showed the worst of the radioactive contamination had not gone outside of the 19-mile range of highest concern set by Japanese authorities.

Though the news was welcome, the report said the United States still wants Americans to be at least 50 miles away from the plant.

In other developments, Kyodo reported Friday various infrastructure services including damaged roads, airports and ports were gradually being restored in the disaster areas, although the fate of thousands of people remained unknown.

The death toll confirmed by the National Police Agency so far has topped 6,400, while more than 10,000 remained missing. Rescue workers were hampered in their delivery of relief supplies to evacuees and survivors by fuel shortages and inadequate transportation.

Finance ministers from the Group of Seven countries agreed Friday to take steps to stem the sharp rise of the Japanese yen against the U.S. dollar. The yen rose to record levels as speculators anticipate more money pouring in from outside to finance rebuilding efforts. However, a higher yen can seriously damage Japan's export-dependent economy by making Japanese goods more expensive in importing countries.

The Group of Seven, which includes the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, announced concerted intervention by central banks in the exchange markets.

Source: UPI