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Week after disasters, Japan concedes slow response

US increases assistance to help prevent full meltdown

A rescue worker walked through rubble in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, yesterday. The death toll rose to more than 7,200, Japan’s National Police Agency said today. A rescue worker walked through rubble in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, yesterday. The death toll rose to more than 7,200, Japan’s National Police Agency said today. (Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images)
By Mari Yamaguchi and Eric Talmadge
Associated Press / March 19, 2011

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TOKYO — One week after an earthquake and tsunami sparked a nuclear crisis, the Japanese government conceded yesterday it was slow to respond to the disaster and welcomed ever-growing help from the United States in hopes of preventing a complete meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

The entire world was on alert, watching for any evidence of dangerous spikes in radioactivity spreading from the six-reactor facility, or that damage to the Japanese economy might send ripple effects around the globe.

As day broke today, emergency crews faced two continuing challenges at the plant: cooling the nuclear fuel in reactors where energy is generated and cooling the adjacent pools where thousands of used nuclear fuel rods are stored in water.

“In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and provided it faster,’’ Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

Crucial to the effort to regain control over the plant is laying a new power line to the complex, allowing operators to restore cooling systems. Tokyo Electric said it has brought the cable to the plant and was expected to try to connect it to the facility’s Unit 2 today; the utility has already missed a Thursday deadline to do that.

Power company official Teruaki Kobayashi warned that specialists will have to check for anything volatile to avoid an explosion when the electricity is turned on. Even once the power is reconnected, it is not clear if the cooling systems will still work after they were swamped by the tsunami.

The storage pools need a constant source of cooling water. Even when removed from reactors, uranium rods are still extremely hot and must be cooled for months, possibly longer, to prevent them from emitting radioactivity.

The government raised the accident classification for the nuclear crisis from Level 4 to Level 5 on a seven-level international scale. That put it on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979, and signified its consequences went beyond the local area. The designation was retroactive to Tuesday.

Outside specialists have said for days that this disaster was worse than that at Three Mile Island, which the United States classified as a 5 on the international scale but that released far less radiation outside the plant than Fukushima Daiichi already has.

Edano also said Tokyo was asking Washington for additional help, yet another change from a few days ago, when Japanese officials disagreed with American assessments of the severity of the problem.

The Science Ministry said radiation levels about 19 miles northwest of the Fukushima site rose at one time yesterday to 0.15 millisieverts per hour, about the amount absorbed in a chest X-ray. While levels fluctuate, radiation at most points at that distance from the facility have been far below that..

A Massachusetts company, iRobot, said it had put four robots on a plane for Japan on Friday at the request of the Japanese military. Colin Angle, the company’s chief executive, said it had sent two small robots that could measure radiation levels close to the reactors and two larger ones that could pull hoses to spray water on the fuel rods.

A US military firetruck was among a fleet of vehicles that sprayed water into Unit 3, according to air force Chief of Staff Shigeru Iwasaki, sending tons of water arcing over the facility in an attempt to prevent nuclear fuel from overheating.

In a further sign of spreading alarm that uranium in the Japanese plant could begin to melt, Japan planned to import about 150 tons of boron from South Korea and France to mix with water to be sprayed onto damaged reactors, French and South Korean officials told The New York Times. Boron absorbs neutrons during a nuclear reaction and can be used in an effort to stop a meltdown if the zirconium cladding on uranium fuel rods is compromised.

In western United States, faint traces of very low levels of radiation from the stricken complex were detected in Sacramento, Calif., bringing the crisis to American shores for the first time. Officials said the levels would have no health consequences.

Sirens wailed along Japan’s devastated northeast coastline yesterday to mark one week since the prosperous country was stricken. More than 7,200 have been killed, Japan’s National Police Agency said today. About 10,900 are missing in an area struck first by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and then an enormous wall of water.

Military search teams today rescued a young man from a crushed house, eight days after the earthquake struck. The man, in his 20s, was rescued from the rubble in Kesennuma.

Amid the misery, the threat of nuclear disaster has riveted international attention.

The tsunami knocked out power to cooling systems at the nuclear plant and its six reactors. Four have since been hit by fires, explosions, or partial meltdowns.

The events have led to power shortages and factory closures, hurt global manufacturing, and triggered a plunge in Japanese stock prices.

Most of Japan’s auto industry is shut down. Factories from Louisiana to Thailand are low on Japanese-made parts. Idled plants are costing companies hundreds of millions of dollars. And US car dealers may not get the cars they order this spring.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan vowed that the disasters would not defeat Japan. “We will rebuild Japan from scratch,’’ he said, comparing the work with the country’s emergence as a global power from the wreckage of World War II.

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.

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