20 Mar 2011

Some progress in averting Japan's nuclear crisis

7:03 pm on 20 March 2011

Officials in Japan say they have made some progress to avert disaster at a tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant, though minor radiation leaks continue.

Three hundred engineers have been battling to salvage the six-reactor Fukushima plant since it was hit by an earthquake and tsunami on 11 March that left more than 20,000 people dead or missing.

Officials say the most critical reactor - No. 3, which contains highly toxic plutonium, stabilised after fire trucks doused it for 13 hours with hundreds of tonnes of water.

Technicians say they have attached a power cable to the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors, hoping to restore electricity later on Sunday prior to an attempt to switch the pumps on.

They aim to reach No. 3 and 4 soon after that.

Kyodo news agency reported that temperatures at spent fuel pools in reactors No. 5 and 6 were returning to normal.

If successful, that could be a turning point in a crisis rated as bad as America's 1979 Three Mile Island accident.

If not, drastic measures may be required such as burying the plant in sand and concrete, as happened at Chernobyl after the world's worst nuclear reactor disaster in 1986.

Experts warn that could take many months and the fuel had to be cooled first.

Even after restoring power, the company that manages the plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), faces a tricky task reactivating the cooling pumps, with parts of the system probably damaged from the quake or subsequent explosions.

"The workers need to go through the plant, figure out what survived and what didn't, what can be readily repaired and get the cooling systems back up and running to deal with the cores and the spentfuel pools," said David Lochbaum, of US nuclear watchdog the Union of Concerned Scientists.