50 Fukushima Heroes Work On, As Radiation Levels Soar

Pausing for respite for a few hours after being temporarily moved away from the source of the radiation spike, the "Fukushima 50", as they've become known, finally had a chance to catch their breath.

It had been misreported by foreign media following a press conference today with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano that the 50 (or so) plant workers had been evacuated. Unfortunately a bungled choice of words by Edano (no doubt owning to the long hours he's been working - in Japan, a kind Twitter hashtag meme called for him to have a nap), led to the confusion. As of 11.30am Japanese today today, the brave workers were back at work, and tending to the fire-ravaged No.4 reactor.

Edano also confirmed that temperatures in the water cooling the nuclear rods have actually increased. An ideal temperature is 40C, but they'd risen to 84C. With reactors 1, 2, 3 and 4 already hit by exposions and fires, the fifth and sixth reactors are now experiencing soaring temperatures too.

TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Co, started spraying seawater and boric acid onto the reactors from military helicopters, but it was abandoned shortly afterwards, after worries too much seawater would be dumped and turn into steam, which would counter their efforts by producing hydrogen and only increasing the pressure.

Current reactor status according to Kyodo News

Reactor 1. Cooling failure, partial melting of core, vapour vented, building damaged by hydrogen explosion, seawater being pumped in.

Reactor 2. Cooling failure, seawater being pumped in, fuel rods fully exposed temporarily, vapour vented, building damaged Monday by blast at Reactor No. 3, damage to containment vessel on Tuesday, potential meltdown feared.

Reactor 3. Cooling failure, partial melting of core feared, vapour vented, seawater being pumped in, building damaged Monday by hydrogen explosion, high-level radiation measured nearby on Tuesday, plume of smoke observed Wednesday, damage to containment vessel likely.

Reactor 4. Fire Tuesday possibly caused by hydrogen explosion at pool holding spent fuel rods, fire observed Wednesday at building housing reactor.

The radiation effects on the 50 workers, believed to be working in shifts, is still unknown. Radiation levels have swung up and down for days now, with the current levels in Fukushima City believed to be 100 times above normal, at around 20 micro-sieverts per hour. Supposedly that's comparable to one chest X-ray every two hours. Nausea, damage to the thyroid, and cancer are the varying stages of radiation poisoning. Around 15 workers are believed to have been injured in the plant's explosions, since Saturday.

Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan has warned TEPCO executives after failing to inform the government of yesterday's explosion, with Kan reportedly saying "the TV reported an explosion, but nothing was said to the prime minister's office for more than an hour. What the hell is going on?" While obviously concerned about the workers' health, Kan has also urged TEPCO to ensure employees continue working on the plant until it is safe, otherwise "the [TEPCO]company will collapse". [The Guardian, Al Jazeera, AltJapan, @Matt_Alt]

UPDATE: The helicopter has been unable to drop any water on the reactor, owing to the high levels of radiation. Workers are now topping up the water from the ground.

Image Credit: Reuters

Full coverage of the Japanese disaster here

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