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Video: Radioactive water leak escalates Japan crisis

  1. Closed captioning of: Radioactive water leak escalates Japan crisis

    >>> good evening. tonight as japan deals with a simmering and some say worsening crisis over nuclear radiation , it's some measure of how big it is when you consider the following. trace amounts of radiation have now been detected in the air and in the rain as far east in this country as pittsburgh, p.a. and the commonwealth of massachusetts . and even though it's a minute, neglible amount being detected, the health commissioner in massachusetts felt the need to reassure people nonetheless.

    >> i want to emphasize that the sampling results indicate no risk to the state drinking water supplies. the drinking water supply in massachusetts is unaffected by this short-term slight elevation in radiation.

    >> and now to the source of this radiation release , potent enough to be carried halfway around the world . in japan radiation is now in the soil, the air and water and the struggle continues to contain it, to stop it and to get several crippled reactors under control. we begin here tonight with nbc's lee cowan in tokyo . lee, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. it is all about radioactive water at this point. there's a lot of it, and authorities are trying to figure out exactly what to do with it all. at one pool near reactor number 2, the radiation levels were more than 100,000 times normal. before the workers can get back into that plant to figure out the source of the radiation, they have to pump all that radioactive water out, somewhere. the stricken nuclear power plant is bleeding radioactive water, but so far engineers aren't sure exactly where it's wounded. not only is the water collecting in pools and buildings just adjacent to the reactors, but it's also been flooding into underground tunnels that house the plant's pipes and electrical cables. officials say for now, the flooded areas remain a no-go zone for workers, until the toxic brew is pumped out.

    >> it's important to realize that we're in a regime now that these reactors were never designed to operate in. so there's no playbook that tells you what to do in these circumstances.

    >> reporter: to add to the contamination woes came this troubling announcement.

    >> tepco electric power company says plutonium has been found in soil.

    >> reporter: plutonium is deadly to humans, even in small doses, and can stay in the environment for thousands of years. experts say the levels found so far have been almost undetectable. still, it prompted more worries that the extent of the damage is far worse than originally thought. some aren't taking any chances. tokyo is famous for its electronics shops, and the hottest item these days are geiger counters , believe it or not. that's if you can even find one. we checked stores all over tokyo . everyone was sold out. this is my last one, this salesman told us. i've got 200 on back order. it doesn't matter, it seems, if customers actually know how to use a geiger counter . with many not trusting the government, they may simply offer peace of mind . and with so many unsettling images coming from areas hit so hard by the quake, any comfort goes a long way. now, those rolling blackouts continue, brian, throughout most of the country, including here in tokyo . and the basics, like bread and water, are still scarce in some of the grocery stores . anything that's perishable is being sent up north, where an estimated quarter of a million people are still in shelters tonight.

    >> lee cowan starting us off tonight in tokyo . lee, thanks.

msnbc.com news services
updated 3/29/2011 12:51:19 AM ET 2011-03-29T04:51:19

Highly toxic plutonium is seeping from the damaged nuclear power plant in Japan's tsunami disaster zone into the soil outside, officials said Tuesday, further complicating the delicate operation to stabilize the overheated facility.

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"The situation is very grave," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters Tuesday. "We are doing our utmost efforts to contain the damage."

Experts had expected traces would be detected once crews began searching for it, because plutonium is present in the production of nuclear energy.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said the amounts found at five sites during testing last week were very small and were not a risk to public health.

TEPCO official Jun Tsuruoka said only two of the plutonium samples were believed to be from a leaking reactor. The other three samples were from earlier nuclear tests, he said. Years of weapons testing in the atmosphere have left trace amounts of plutonium in many places around the world.

But finding plutonium is a concern because it is the most toxic of isotopes that can be released from a nuclear reactor. It can be fatal to humans in very tiny doses and does not decay quickly.

The report followed another discovery Monday: New pools of radioactive water are leaking from the plant.

Officials believe the contaminated water was responsible for radioactivity levels soaring at the coastal complex on Sunday, causing more radiation to seep into soil and seawater, before levels fell again.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, 140 miles northeast of Tokyo, was crippled March 11 when a tsunami spawned by a powerful earthquake slammed into Japan's northeastern coast. The huge wave engulfed much of the complex, and destroyed the crucial power systems needed to cool the complex's nuclear fuel rods.

Since then, three of the complex's six units are believed to have partially melted down, and emergency crews have struggled with everything from malfunctioning pumps to dangerous spikes in radiation that have forced temporary evacuations.

Experts warn that Japan faces a long fight to contain the world's most dangerous atomic crisis in 25 years.

"This is far beyond what one nation can handle — it needs to be bumped up to the U.N. Security Council," said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California. "In my humble opinion, this is more important than the Libya no-fly zone."

Murray Jennex, a nuclear power plant expert and associate professor at San Diego State University, said "there's not really a plan B" other than to dry out the plant, get power restored and start cooling it down.

"What we're now in is a long slog period with lots of small, unsexy steps that have to be taken to pull the whole thing together," he told Reuters.

The good news, he said, was that the reactor cores appeared to be cooling down.

'Delicate work'
Confusion at the plant has intensified fears that the nuclear crisis will last weeks, months or years amid alarms over radiation making its way into produce, raw milk and even tap water as far away as Tokyo.

The troubles have eclipsed Pennsylvania's 1979 crisis at Three Mile Island, when a partial meltdown raised fears of widespread radiation release, but is still well short of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which killed at least 31 people with radiation sickness, raised long-term cancer rates, and spewed radiation for hundreds of miles.

While parts of the Japanese plant has been reconnected to the power grid, the contaminated water — which has now been found in numerous places around the complex, including the basements of several buildings — must be pumped out before electricity can be restored to the cooling system.

That has left officials struggling with two sometimes-contradictory efforts: pumping in water to keep the fuel rods cool and pumping out — and then safely storing — contaminated water.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, called that balance "very delicate work."

He also said workers were still looking for safe ways to store the radioactive water. "We are exploring all means," he said.

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The buildup of radioactive water first became a problem last week, when it splashed over the boots of two workers, burning them and prompting a temporary suspension of work.

Then on Monday, TEPCO officials said workers had found more radioactive water in deep trenches used for pipes and electrical wiring outside three units.

The contaminated water has been emitting radiation exposures more than four times the amount that the government considers safe for workers.

The five workers in the area at the time were not hurt, said TEPCO spokesman Takashi Kurita.

Exactly where the water is coming from remains unclear, though many suspect it is cooling water that has leaked from one of the disabled reactors.

It could take weeks to pump out the radioactive water, said Gary Was, a nuclear engineering professor at the University of Michigan.

"Battling the contamination so workers can work there is going to be an ongoing problem," he said.

The Yomiuri daily newspaper reported that the government was considering temporarily nationalizing the troubled nuclear plant operator , but Edano and TEPCO officials denied holding any such discussions.

Meanwhile, new readings showed ocean contamination had spread about a mile farther north of the nuclear site than before but is still within the 12-mile radius of the evacuation zone.

Radioactive iodine-131 was discovered offshore at a level 1,150 times higher than normal, Nishiyama, a spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told reporters.

Video: American recalls quake, tsunami in Japan (on this page)

Amid reports that people had been sneaking back into the mandatory evacuation zone around the nuclear complex, the chief government spokesman again urged residents to stay out. Yukio Edano said contaminants posed a "big" health risk in that area.

Quake risk at nuclear plants

Japanese officials and international nuclear experts have generally said the levels away from the plant are not dangerous for humans, who face higher radiation doses on a daily basis from natural substances, X-rays or plane flights.

'Unprecedented challenge'
Gregory Jaczko, head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, arrived in Tokyo on Monday to meet with Japanese officials and discuss the situation, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

"The unprecedented challenge before us remains serious, and our best experts remain fully engaged to help Japan," Jaczko was quoted as saying.

Early Monday, a strong earthquake shook the northeastern coast and prompted a brief tsunami alert. The quake was measured at magnitude 6.5, the Japan Meteorological Agency said. No damage or injuries were reported.

Scores of earthquakes have rattled the country over the past two weeks, adding to the sense of unease across Japan, where the final death toll is expected to top 18,000 people, with hundreds of thousands still homeless.

TEPCO officials said Sunday that radiation in leaking water from Unit 2 was 10 million times above normal — a report that sent employees fleeing. But the day ended with officials saying that figure had been miscalculated and the level was actually 100,000 times above normal, still very high but far better than the earlier results.

"This sort of mistake is not something that can be forgiven," Edano said sternly Monday.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Map: Japan earthquake

  1. Above: Map Japan earthquake
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  3. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Timeline Crisis in Japan

Explainer: The 10 deadliest earthquakes in recorded history

  • A look at the worst earthquakes in recorded history, in loss of human life. (The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsumani that affected eastern Japan is not included because the fatalities caused, about 15,000, are fewer than those resulting from the temblors listed below.) Sources: United States Geological Survey, Encyclopedia Britannica

  • 1: Shensi, China, Jan. 23, 1556

    Magnitude about 8, about 830,000 deaths.

    This earthquake occurred in the Shaanxi province (formerly Shensi), China, about 50 miles east-northeast of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi. More than 830,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Damage extended as far away as about 270 miles northeast of the epicenter, with reports as far as Liuyang in Hunan, more than 500 miles away. Geological effects reported with this earthquake included ground fissures, uplift, subsidence, liquefaction and landslides. Most towns in the damage area reported city walls collapsed, most to all houses collapsed and many of the towns reported ground fissures with water gushing out.

  • 2: Tangshan, China, July 27, 1976

    Chinese Earthquake
    Keystone  /  Getty Images
    1976: Workers start rebuilding work following earthquake damage in the Chinese city of Tangshan, 100 miles east of Pekin, with a wrecked train carriage behind them. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
    Magnitude 7.5. Official casualty figure is 255,000 deaths. Estimated death toll as high as 655,000.

    Damage extended as far as Beijing. This is probably the greatest death toll from an earthquake in the last four centuries, and the second greatest in recorded history.

  • 3: Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 9, 1138

    Magnitude not known, about 230,000 deaths.

    Contemporary accounts said the walls of Syria’s second-largest city crumbled and rocks cascaded into the streets. Aleppo’s citadel collapsed, killing hundreds of residents. Although Aleppo was the largest community affected by the earthquake, it likely did not suffer the worst of the damage. European Crusaders had constructed a citadel at nearby Harim, which was leveled by the quake. A Muslim fort at Al-Atarib was destroyed as well, and several smaller towns and manned forts were reduced to rubble. The quake was said to have been felt as far away as Damascus, about 220 miles to the south. The Aleppo earthquake was the first of several occurring between 1138 and 1139 that devastated areas in northern Syria and western Turkey.

  • 4: Sumatra, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2004

    Aerial images show the extent of the devastation in Meulaboh
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    MEULABOH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 29: In this handout photo taken from a print via the Indonesian Air Force, the scene of devastation in Meulaboh, the town closest to the Sunday's earthquake epicentre, is pictured from the air on December 29, 2004, Meulaboh, Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. The western coastal town in Aceh Province, only 60 kilometres north-east of the epicentre, has been the hardest hit by sunday's underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Officials expected to find at least 10,000 killed which would amount to a quarter of Meulaboh's population. Three-quarters of Sumatra's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out after the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. (Photo by Indonesian Air Force via Getty Images)

    Magnitude 9.1, 227,898 deaths.

    This was the third largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the largest since the 1964 Prince William Sound, Alaska temblor. In total, 227,898 people were killed or were missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in South Asia and East Africa. (In January 2005, the death toll was 286,000. In April 2005, Indonesia reduced its estimate for the number missing by over 50,000.)

  • 5: Haiti, Jan 12, 2010

    Haitians walk through collapsed building
    Jean-philippe Ksiazek  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Haitians walk through collapsed buildings near the iron market in Port-au-Prince on January 31, 2010. Quake-hit Haiti will need at least a decade of painstaking reconstruction, aid chiefs and donor nations warned, as homeless, scarred survivors struggled today to rebuild their lives. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK (Photo credit should read JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

    Magnitude 7.0. According to official estimates, 222,570 people killed.

    According to official estimates, 300,000 were also injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti. This includes at least 4 people killed by a local tsunami in the Petit Paradis area near Leogane. Tsunami waves were also reported at Jacmel, Les Cayes, Petit Goave, Leogane, Luly and Anse a Galets.

  • 6: Damghan, Iran, Dec. 22, 856

    Magnitude not known, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake struck a 200-mile stretch of northeast Iran, with the epicenter directly below the city of Demghan, which was at that point the capital city. Most of the city was destroyed as well as the neighboring areas. Approximately 200,000 people were killed.

  • 7: Haiyuan, Ningxia , China, Dec. 16, 1920

    7.8 magnitude, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake brought total destruction to the Lijunbu-Haiyuan-Ganyanchi area. Over 73,000 people were killed in Haiyuan County. A landslide buried the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County. More than 30,000 people were killed in Guyuan County. Nearly all the houses collapsed in the cities of Longde and Huining. About 125 miles of surface faulting was seen from Lijunbu through Ganyanchi to Jingtai. There were large numbers of landslides and ground cracks throughout the epicentral area. Some rivers were dammed, others changed course.

  • 8: Ardabil, Iran, March. 23, 893

    Magnitude not known, about 150,000 deaths

    The memories of the massive Damghan earthquake (see above) had barely faded when only 37 years later, Iran was again hit by a huge earthquake. This time it cost 150,000 lives and destroyed the largest city in the northwestern section of the country. The area was again hit by a fatal earthquake in 1997.

  • 9: Kanto, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923

    Kanto Damage
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images
    1923: High-angle view of earthquake and fire damage on Hongokucho Street and the Kanda District, taken from the Yamaguchi Bank building after the Kanto earthquake, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    7.9 magnitude, 142,800 deaths.

    This earthquake brought extreme destruction in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, both from the temblor and subsequent firestorms, which burned about 381,000 of the more than 694,000 houses that were partially or completely destroyed. Although often known as the Great Tokyo Earthquake (or the Great Tokyo Fire), the damage was most severe in Yokohama. Nearly 6 feet of permanent uplift was observed on the north shore of Sagami Bay and horizontal displacements of as much as 15 feet were measured on the Boso Peninsula.

  • 10: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Oct. 5, 1948

    7.3 magnitude, 110,000 deaths.

    This quake brought extreme damage in Ashgabat (Ashkhabad) and nearby villages, where almost all the brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged and freight trains were derailed. Damage and casualties also occurred in the Darreh Gaz area in neighboring Iran. Surface rupture was observed both northwest and southeast of Ashgabat. Many sources list the casualty total at 10,000, but a news release from the newly independent government on Dec. 9, 1988, advised that the correct death toll was 110,000. (Turkmenistan had been part of the Soviet Union, which tended to downplay the death tolls from man-made and natural disasters.)

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