Japan reactor crisis raises nuclear fears

 
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JAPAN fought to keep control of its damaged nuclear power plants yesterday, as explosions at two more of the Fukushima plant reactors fuelled fears of a partial meltdown from failed cooling systems and hammered the markets this morning.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 index fell six per cent in the first hour of trading this morning, after suffering the fastest decline since October 2008 yesterday. Utility, transport and manufacturing stocks were hit hard again as the country’s weakened infrastructure hampered the ongoing rescue efforts.

World stocks slid to six-week lows yesterday as traders reacted to the unfolding disaster.

Officials reported an explosion at Fukushima’s reactor 2 early this morning, where yesterday workers had raced to prevent meltdown when the improvised seawater cooling system failed leaving nuclear rods temporarily exposed.

Non-essential workers were evacuated from Fukushima early this morning after fears of a radiation leak.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said the rods in Fukushima’s reactor 2 were half-covered with water at 9am local time (midnight GMT), and that levels continued to improve in all the units.

“There is the possibility that damage was done to the suppression pool,” said a spokesperson during a news conference, referring to the store of water under the reactor meant to prevent meltdown. “The water injection operations are being continued.”

Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said earlier yesterday some damage has been detected at reactor 2, though no data was available this morning.

A separate blow-out at Fukushima’s reactor 3, thought to be caused by a hydrogen build-up, sent flames and black smoke into the air at 11am local time yesterday.

Radiation levels at the plants, located 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, climbed from 1,941 to 8,217 microsieverts an hour at 9am local time, TEPCO said – well above the legal limit of 500 microsieverts an hour.

Across the country, officials said at least 10,000 people have died since the earthquake and subsequent tsunami on Friday.

About 450,000 people have been evacuated nationwide in addition to 80,000 from the exclusion zone around the nuclear power plants, and almost 2m households remain without water. “The Japanese government is currently taking the necessary precautions – evacuating nearby communities, putting people in safe shelters and distributing potassium iodide to those at risk,” the World Health Organisation said.