TOKYO – The Japanese government acknowledged Friday
that it was overwhelmed by the scale of last week's twin natural
disasters, slowing the response to the nuclear crisis that was triggered
by the earthquake and tsunami that left at least 10,000 people dead.
The admission came as Japan welcomed U.S. help in
stabilizing its overheated, radiation-leaking nuclear complex, and
reclassified the rating of the nuclear accident from Level 4 to Level 5
on a seven-level international scale, putting it on a par with the 1979
Three Mile Island accident.
Nuclear experts have been saying for days that Japan
was underplaying the severity of the nuclear crisis, which later Friday
the prime minister called "very grave."
The International Nuclear Event Scale defines a Level
4 incident as having local consequences and a Level 5 as having wider
Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's nuclear safety agency
said the rating was raised when officials realized that at least 3
percent of the fuel in three of the reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi
plant had been severely damaged, suggesting those reactor cores have
partially melted down and thrown radioactivity into the environment.
"The unprecedented scale of the earthquake and
tsunami that struck Japan, frankly speaking, were among many things that
happened that had not been anticipated under our disaster management
contingency plans," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, admitting
that information had not been shared quickly enough.
"In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker
in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and
provided it faster," he said.
Later, Prime Minister Naoto Kan urged the nation to unite.
"We will rebuild Japan from scratch. We must all
share this resolve," he said in a nationally televised address, calling
the crises a "great test for the Japanese people."
At the stricken complex, military fire trucks sprayed
the reactor units for a second day, with tons of water arcing over the
facility in desperate attempts to prevent the fuel from overheating and
spewing dangerous levels of radiation.
Click image to see photos of quake, tsunami damage
"The whole world, not just Japan, is depending on
them," Tokyo office worker Norie Igarashi, 44, said of the emergency
teams working amid heightened radiation levels at the complex.
Last week's 9.0 quake and tsunami set off the nuclear
problems by knocking out power to cooling systems at the Fukushima
plant on the northeast coast. Since then, four of its six reactor units
have seen fires, explosions or partial meltdowns.
The unfolding crises have led to power shortages in
Japan, forced factories to close, sent shockwaves through global
manufacturing and triggered a plunge in Japanese stock prices.
"We see it as an extremely serious accident," Yukiya
Amano, the head of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, told
reporters Friday in Tokyo. "This is not something that just Japan should
deal with, and people of the entire world should cooperate with Japan
and the people in the disaster areas."
"I think they are racing against the clock," he said of the efforts to cool the complex.
One week after the twin disasters — which has
officially left more than 6,900 dead and more than 10,700 missing —
emergency crews are facing two challenges in the nuclear crisis: cooling
the reactors where energy is generated, and cooling the adjacent pools
where used nuclear fuel rods are stored in water.
Both need water to stop their uranium from heating up
and emitting radiation, but with radiation levels inside the complex
already limiting where workers can go and how long they can remain, it's
been difficult to get enough water inside.
Water in at least one fuel pool — in the complex's
Unit 3 — is believed to be dangerously low. Without enough water, the
rods may heat further and spew out radiation.
"Dealing with Unit 3 is our utmost priority," Edano told reporters.
Edano said Tokyo is asking the U.S. government for help and that the two
are discussing the specifics. "We are coordinating with the U.S.
government as to what the U.S. can provide and what people really need,"
While Tokyo quickly welcomed international help for the natural
disasters, the government initially balked at assistance with the
nuclear crisis. That reluctance softened as the problems at Fukushima
multiplied. Washington says its technical experts are now exchanging
information with officials from Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the
plant, and with government agencies.
A U.S. military fire truck was also used to help spray water into Unit
3, according to air force Chief of Staff Shigeru Iwasaki, though the
vehicle was apparently driven by Japanese workers.
The U.S. vehicle was used alongside six Japanese military fire trucks normally used to extinguish fires at plane crashes.
The fire trucks allowed emergency workers to stay a relatively safe
distance from the radiation, firing the water with high-pressure
cannons. The firefighters also are able to direct the cannons from
inside the vehicle.
Officials shared few details about Friday's operation, which lasted
nearly 40 minutes, though Iwasaki said he believed some water had
reached its target.
The U.S. has also now conducted overflights of the reactor site,
strapping sophisticated pods onto aircraft to measure airborne
radiation, U.S. officials said. Two tests conducted Thursday gave
readings that U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel B. Poneman said
reinforced the U.S. recommendation that people keep away from a 50-mile
(80-kilometer) radius around the Fukushima plant.
Tsunami survivors observed a minute of silence Friday afternoon to mark
one week since the quake, which struck at 2:46 p.m. on March 11. Many
were bundled up against the cold in the disaster zone, pressing their
hands together in prayer.
Low levels of radiation have been detected well beyond Tokyo, which is
140 miles (220 kilometers) south of the plant, but hazardous levels have
been limited to the plant itself. Still, the crisis has forced
thousands to evacuate and drained Tokyo's normally vibrant streets of
life, its residents either leaving town or hunkering down in their
The Japanese government has been slow in releasing information on the
crisis, even as the troubles have multiplied. In a country where the
nuclear industry has a long history of hiding its safety problems, this
has left many people, in Japan and among governments overseas, confused
After meeting with Kan and other senior officials, the U.N.'s Amano
complained that his agency had not been receiving critical information.
He said, for instance, the IAEA wanted to know what kind of radioactive
elements were being released but could not get the data.
"This kind of information is needed in a timely way, and we hope the
Japanese government will provide it. We hope everything will be better,"
Amano told reporters.
At times, Japan and the U.S. — two very close allies — have offered
starkly differing assessments over the dangers at Fukushima. U.S.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jazcko said Thursday that
it could take days and "possibly weeks" to get the complex under
control. He defended the U.S. decision to recommend a 50-mile
(80-kilometer) evacuation zone for its citizens, wider than the 12-mile
(20-kilometer) band Japan has ordered.
Crucial to the effort to regain control over the Fukushima plant is
laying a new power line to the plant, allowing operators to restore
cooling systems. The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., missed a
deadline late Thursday but hoped to completed the effort late Friday,
said nuclear safety agency spokesman Minoru Ohgoda.
But even once the power is reconnected, it was not clear if the cooling systems were intact and will still work.
Workers were completing laying cables around Units 1 and 2 on Friday, a
power company official said, and hoped to reach more units Saturday.
Even so, experts will have to check for anything volatile to avoid an
explosion when the electricity is turned on.
"There may be sparks, so I can't deny the risk," said Teruaki Kobayashi.
President Barack Obama assured Americans that officials do not expect
harmful amounts of radiation to reach the U.S. or its territories. He
also said the U.S. was offering Japan any help it could provide.
Police said more than 452,000 people made homeless by the quake and
tsunami were staying in schools and other shelters, as supplies of fuel,
medicine and other necessities ran short. Both victims and aid workers
appealed for more help, as the chances of finding more survivors
About 343,000 Japanese households still do not have electricity, and about 1 million have no water.
At the Fukushima plant, a core team of 180 emergency workers has been
rotating out of the complex to minimize radiation exposure.
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 heating up
again and emitting radioactivity.
The actions authorities are taking to cool the reactors are the best
ones available, experts say. Eventually, the plant may be entombed in
concrete, as was done hastily after the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident.
But pressures and temperatures must be controlled before then, said
Mario V. Bonaca, an adviser to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Otherwise, he said, overheated nuclear fuel will melt or burst through
the sand, cement or other covering and release more radiation.
Talmadge reported from Yamagata. Associated Press writers Elaine
Kurtenbach, Tim Sullivan, Shino Yuasa and Jeff Donn in Tokyo, Todd
Pitman in Shizugaza and Kelly Olsen in Narita, Japan contributed to this