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Latest update : 2011-03-18

Japan's government has raised the nuclear disaster level at its quake-stricken Fukushima plant from four to five, one week after a devastating earthquake and tsunami left more than 16,000 people either dead or missing.

REUTERS - Exhausted engineers scrambled to fix a power cable to two reactors at Japan's tsunami-crippled nuclear station on Saturday in a race to prevent deadly radiation from an accident now rated at least as bad as America's Three Mile Island in 1979.

In a crude tactic underlining authorities' desperation, fire engines also sprayed water overnight on a third reactor deemed to be in the most critical state at the Fukushima plant in northeastern Japan, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

The unprecedented multiple crisis of earthquake, tsunami and radiation leak has unsettled world financial markets, prompted international reassessment of nuclear safety and given the Asian nation its toughest time since World War Two.

It has also stirred unhappy memories of Japan's past nuclear nightmare -- the U.S. atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

At Fukushima, nearly 300 engineers were working inside a 20 km (12 miles) evacuation zone. Their focus is on attaching power lines to two of the six reactors in order to restart water pumps and cool overheated nuclear fuel rods.

Japan's quake-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

"Once we have an electric power supply, we will go slowly and carefully through the plant checking the various machines to see what is working and to also avoid short-circuiting them," a nuclear safety agency official said in the latest of round-the-clock briefings.

If those tactics fail, the option of last resort may be to bury the sprawling 40-year-old plant in sand and concrete to prevent a catastrophic radiation release. That method was used to seal huge leakages from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Japan has raised the severity rating of the nuclear crisis from level 4 to level 5 on the seven-level INES international scale, putting it on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, although some experts say it is more serious.

Chernobyl, in Ukraine, was a 7 on that scale.

The U.N. Atomic agency at least said the situation in Japan was not deteriorating despite remaining "very serious".

The operation to avert a large-scale radiation leak has overshadowed the humanitarian aftermath of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 10-metre (33-foot) tsunami that struck on March 11.

Nearly 7,000 people have been confirmed killed in the double natural disaster, which turned whole towns into waterlogged and debris-shrouded wastelands.

Another 10,700 people are missing with many feared dead.

Some 390,000 people, including many among Japan's ageing population, are homeless and battling near-freezing temperatures in shelters in northeastern coastal areas. Food, water, medicine and heating fuel are in short supply.

"Everything is gone, including money," said Tsukasa Sato, a 74-year-old barber with a heart condition, as he warmed his hands in front of a stove at a shelter for the homeless.

Health officials and the U.N. atomic watchdog have said radiation levels in the capital Tokyo were not harmful. But the city has seen an exodus of tourists, expatriates and many Japanese, who fear a blast of radioactive material.

"I'm leaving because my parents are terrified. I personally think this will turn out to be the biggest paper tiger the world has ever seen," said Luke Ridley, 23, from London as he sat at Narita international airport using his laptop.

"I'll probably come back in about a month."

Amid their distress, Japanese were proud of the 279 nuclear plant workers toiling in the wreckage, wearing masks, goggles and protective suits sealed by duct tape.

"My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing," Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told Reuters.

G7 intervention for yen

The first step will be to lay cables to pumps for reactors No. 1 and 2, and possibly then 3 and 4, over the weekend, said the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Reactor No. 3 is a focal point in the crisis because of its use of mixed oxides, or mox, containing both uranium and highly toxic plutonium.

Even if engineers restore power at the plant, the pumps may be too damaged to work.

But if they do, it could be a turning point.

"If they can get those electric pumps on and they can start pushing that water successfully up the core, quite slowly so you don't cause any brittle failure, they should be able to get it under control in the next couple of days," said Laurence Williams, of Britain's University of Central Lancashire.

The last-resort option of burying the reactors could leave part of Japan off-limits for decades.

The Group of Seven rich nations, attempting to calm global financial markets after a tumultuous week, agreed on Friday to join in a rare concerted intervention to restrain a soaring yen.

The U.S. dollar surged more than two yen to 81.80 after the G7's pledge to intervene, leaving behind a record low of 76.25 hit on Thursday.

Japan's Nikkei share index ended up 2.7 percent, recouping some of the week's stinging losses. It has lost 10.2 percent this week, wiping $350 billion off market capitalisation.

The plight of the homeless worsened following a cold snap that brought heavy snow to worst-affected areas.

Nearly 290,000 households in the north were still without electricity, officials said, and the government said about 940,000 households lacked running water.

Aid groups say most victims are getting help, but there are pockets of acute suffering.

"We've seen children suffering with the cold, and lacking really basic items like food and clean water," Stephen McDonald of Save the Children said in a statement on Friday.


Date created : 2011-03-18


    Thursday's blog: Frantic battle to avert nuclear meltdown

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    Japanese military dumps water on stricken reactor

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    Engineers consider burying Fukushima to block radiation

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