PM vows to ‘rebuild the nation from scratch’

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The Independent Online

A week since a massive earthquake plunged Japan into its worst crisis since the Second World War, its Prime Minister yesterday vowed to "rebuild the nation from scratch" as technicians battled to cool radioactive fuel at a nuclear plant 155 miles away.

"What has happened is a great test of the Japanese people and we must not be discouraged," Naoto Kan told a live TV audience from Tokyo, where blackouts and fuel shortages continue to affect millions of people.

Japan's nuclear agency raised the alert level at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, citing "serious damage" to reactors No 2 and No 3 and placing it on a par with the 1979 Three Mile Island incident. Reactor No 4, housing spent fuel rods, is also believed to be leaking radiation.

Technicians battling to cool fuel rods and stem the flow of radioactivity from the plant appeared to be making little progress. Fire trucks and water cannons have been spraying overheating reactors for two days.

Two military helicopters equipped with 7.5-ton buckets yesterday again dumped seawater on the No 3 reactor, but radiation of 87.7 millisieverts per hour forced the pilots to withdraw for decontamination. Radiation is also slowing the attempt get a power cable to the plant and restart pumps to cool the reactors. Engineers are reportedly considering a plan to entomb the plant in a concrete coffin, a strategy used during the world's worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

Mr Kan was forced yesterday to respond to growing unease at his government's handling of the nuclear crisis by promising more transparency on the status of the Fukushima plant. UN nuclear watchdog chief Yukiya Amano said yesterday in Tokyo that the world wants "more volume of accurate information more quickly" on what is going on inside its stricken reactors.

Mr Amano, a Japanese national, called the situation in Fukushima "grave" and said a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency will be sent closer to the plant to monitor radiation. "It's a race against the clock," he said. Japan's government admitted yesterday that it has been overwhelmed by the scale of this week's disaster, which was sparked by the most powerful earthquake in the country's history.

"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," Yukio Edano, the government's top spokesman, said.

Thousands of Japanese observed a moment of silence yesterday at 2.46pm, exactly a week after the magnitude-9 quake struck. Officials said yesterday that the death toll from the disaster had reached 6,900, surpassing the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake at Kobe. About 10,300 people are still missing and hundreds of thousands are in temporary shelters, mainly in the freezing north-east.

With the crisis in Fukushima showing few signs of ending, foreigners are continuing to flee the city. Britain has arranged charter flights for its nationals, which are free for those in the disaster zone. A spokesman said a "significant number" of British people are still in the affected area. "It's a challenge to identify them," he said. The Irish Embassy in Tokyo is noting a rise in the number of nationals applying for new passports, especially for children. Many have probably evacuated the capital for the west and south of Japan.

Tokyo's rolling power cuts are affecting corporate production in the capital. Hundreds of foreign companies have relocated to the west of Japan.

Warning system explained

* The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) is the measure for nuclear accidents ranging from level one (anomaly) to seven (major accident).

* Every level represents an accident approximately 10 times more severe than the next highest.

* The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 has the highest rating of seven, causing widespread health and environmental effects.

* The rise to level five rates events in Japan as an "accident with wider consequences". It puts it on the same scale as the Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979 and Windscale, Britain's biggest nuclear disaster in 1957.

The radiation risk

* The 180 men working at the damaged nuclear plant at Fukushima to try to prevent more radiation leaks have been described as the "suicide squads" by the Japanese media. But what is the extent of the health risk they face?

* The radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant poses the biggest and most immediate danger to the skeleton staff who have been struggling to keep the reactors and fuel-storage ponds from overheating for a week.

They have been working under extraordinary conditions, with explosions, fires and venting of radioactive steam frustrating their efforts to restore power and keep coolant levels as high as possible in the reactors and storage ponds.

Normally, nuclear workers are allowed to absorb a dose of 20 millisieverts a year, and if that is exceeded over any 12-month period they must be laid off for the rest of the year. In this emergency, the plant's operators have been permitted to allow its workers to absorb up to 250 millisieverts, before the exposed men or women have to leave the site.

Reports suggest that some workers may have already had up to 250 millisieverts. If this is in the form of "whole body gamma radiation" this would constitute an increase in lifetime risk of developing cancer by 1 per cent, according to the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

This compares to several thousand millisieverts of radiation suffered by some of the workers who tackled the Chernobyl disaster, 28 of whom died of the immediate effects of radiation sickness.