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Japan readies fire trucks at stricken nuclear plant

18 march 2011, 11:06
Japan prepared to resume cooling operations at a quake-hit nuclear plant Friday using a fleet of fire trucks, as workers racing against time to avert catastrophe ran a power supply cable to the site, AFP reports.

Attempts are being made to douse fuel rods and prevent a calamitous radiation release at the Fukushima No.1 power station, 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of Tokyo.

About 20 fire trucks stood at the ready at the facility, which suffered critical damage in the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami a week ago, NHK footage showed. They were expected to be put into use later Friday.

The twin disasters knocked out the plant's reactor cooling systems, sparking a series of explosions and fires. Authorities have since raced to keep the fuel rods inside reactors and containment pools under water.

If they are exposed to air, they could degrade further and emit even more dangerous radioactive material.

Four twin-rotor CH-47 Chinooks ran the first mission to empty large buckets that hold more than seven tons of water each onto the facility on Thursday. Five special Self-Defence Forces (SDF) fire trucks later joined the effort.

"We poured water onto the number three reactor yesterday. There is no doubt that water entered the pool, but we have not confirmed how much water is in there," chief government spokesman Yukio Edano told a news conference.

"We will go ahead and continue to discharge water on the reactor this afternoon. The number three reactor is the top priority."

But the defence ministry said the military helicopters would not be used Friday, without giving a reason.

Fluctuating radiation levels at the complex have hindered the cooling operation, repeatedly sparking delays.

Officials at Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), which operates the Fukushima No. 1 plant, said overnight that they believed the effort was bearing fruit.

"When we poured water, we monitored steam rising from the facility. By pouring water, we believe the water turned down the heat. We believe that there was a certain effect," a TEPCO spokesman told reporters.

A nuclear safety agency spokesman said Friday: "White smoke, possibly steam, has been rising from the number two reactor since yesterday and we have not confirmed any sign of stop."

Television footage also showed similar smoke rising from the number three and four reactors.

The fuel-rod pools at reactors three and four may be boiling and are not fully covered by roofs that would reduce radiation leaks.

Workers were also continuing with the crucial task of trying to restore power lines, Edano said, in a bid to reactivate the plant's crippled cooling systems.

The nuclear safety agency said early Friday that TEPCO had managed to get a line from a regional power firm into the plant site which would allow it to restore the cooling system.

"The power cable is near. We would like to speed up this operation as we can then use it to speed up the rest of what we have to do," Edano said.

A TEPCO spokesman earlier told AFP: "If the restoration work is completed, we will be able to activate various electric pumps and pour water into reactors and pools for spent nuclear fuel."

Edano denied that Tokyo had rejected an offer of US assistance.

Paving the way for a more direct role by the US military, the Pentagon said it had sent a team of experts to evaluate what assistance US forces could provide the effort to control plant.

The 9.0-magnitude quake, the biggest on record to strike Japan, knocked down electricity pylons used to supply power to the TEPCO plant.

The French nuclear authority has said the disaster equated to a six on the seven-point international scale for nuclear accidents, ranking the crisis second only in gravity to Chernobyl.

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