FUKUSHIMA, Japan >> Workers at a leaking nuclear plant hooked up power lines to all six of the crippled complex’s reactor units Tuesday, but other repercussions from the massive earthquake and tsunami were still rippling across the nation as economic losses mounted at three of Japan’s flagship companies.
The progress on the electrical lines at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was a welcome and significant advance after days of setbacks. With the power lines connected, officials hope to start up the overheated plant’s crucial cooling system that was knocked out during the March 11 tsunami and earthquake that devastated Japan’s northeast coast.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. warned that workers still need to check all equipment for damage first before switching the cooling system on to all the reactor units — a process that could take days or even weeks.
Late Tuesday night, Tokyo Electric said lights went on in the central control room of Unit 3, but that doesn’t mean power had been restored to the cooling system. Officials will wait until sometime Wednesday to try to power up the water pumps to the unit.
Emergency crews also dumped 18 tons of seawater into a nearly boiling storage pool holding spent nuclear fuel, cooling it to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, Japan’s nuclear safety agency said. Steam, possibly carrying radioactive elements, had been rising for two days from the reactor building, and the move lessens the chances that more radiation will seep into the air.
Added up, the power lines and concerted dousing bring authorities closer to ending a nuclear crisis that has complicated the government’s response to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that killed an estimated 18,000 people.
Its power supply knocked out by the disasters, the Fukushima complex has leaked radiation that has found its way into vegetables, raw milk, the water supply and even seawater. Government officials and health experts say the doses are low and not a threat to human health unless the tainted products are consumed in abnormally excessive quantities.
The Health Ministry ordered officials in the area of the stricken plant to increase monitoring of seawater and seafood after elevated levels of radioactive iodine and cesium were found in ocean water near the complex. Education Ministry official Shigeharu Kato said a research vessel had been dispatched to collect and analyze samples.
The crisis was continuing to batter Japan’s once-robust economy.
Three of the country’s biggest brands — Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Sony Corp. — put off a return to normal production due to shortages of parts and raw materials because of earthquake damage to factories in affected areas.
Toyota and Honda said they would extend a shutdown of auto production in Japan that already is in its second week, while Sony said it was suspending some manufacturing of popular consumer electronics such as digital cameras and TVs.
The National Police Agency said the overall number of bodies collected so far stood at 9,099, while 13,786 people have been listed as missing.
"We must overcome this crisis that we have never experienced in the past, and it’s time to make a nationwide effort," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, the government’s public point-man, said Tuesday in his latest attempt to try to soothe public anxieties.
Still, tensions were running high. Officials in the town of Kawamata, about 30 miles away from the reactors, brought in a radiation specialist from Nagasaki — site of an atomic bombing during World War II — to calm residents’ fears.
"I want to tell you that you are safe. You don’t need to worry," Dr. Noboru Takamura told hundreds of residents at a community meeting. "The levels of radiation here are clearly not high enough to cause damage to your health."
But worried community members peppered him with questions: "What will happen to us if it takes three years to shut down the reactors?" ”Is our milk safe to drink?" ”If the schools are opened, will it be safe for kids to play outside for gym class?"
Public sentiment is such in the area that Fukushima’s governor rejected a request from the president of Tokyo Electric, or TEPCO, to apologize for the troubles.
"What is most important is for TEPCO to end the crisis with maximum effort. So I rejected the offer," Gov. Yuhei Sato said on national broadcaster NHK. "Considering the anxiety, anger and exasperation being felt by people in Fukushima, there is just no way for me to accept their apology."
While many of the region’s schools, gymnasiums and other community buildings are packed with the newly homeless, in the 11 days since the disasters the numbers of people staying in shelters has halved to 268,510, presumably as many move in with relatives.
In the first five days after the disasters struck, the Fukushima complex saw explosions and fires in four of the plant’s six reactors, and the leaking of radioactive steam into the air. Since then, progress continued intermittently as efforts to splash seawater on the reactors and rewire the complex were disrupted by rises in radiation, elevated pressure in reactors and overheated storage pools.
Tuesday’s turnaround, in part, came as radiation levels abated from last week’s highs, allowing authorities to bring in more workers. By Tuesday, 1,000 plant workers, subcontractors, defense troops and firefighters were at the scene, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
With the power lines connected, Tokyo Electric and experts said still more time is needed to replace damaged equipment and vent any volatile gas to make sure electricity does not spark an explosion.
"You’re going to get fires now as they energize equipment," said Arnold Gundersen, the chief engineer at the U.S.-based environmental consulting company Fairewinds Associates. "It’s going to be a long slog."
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said that radiation seeping into the environment is a concern and needs to be monitored. IAEA monitoring stations have detected radiation 1,600 times higher than normal levels — but in an area about 12 miles from the power station, the limit of the evacuation area declared by the government last week.
Radiation at that level, while not high for a single burst, could harm health if sustained. If projected to last three days, radiation at those levels U.S. authorities would order an evacuation as a precaution.
The levels drop dramatically the farther you go from the nuclear complex. In Tokyo, about 140 miles south of the plant, levels in recent days have been higher than normal for the city but still only a third of the global average for naturally occurring background radiation.
There have been few reports of looting since the disasters struck. But someone did take advantage of a bank’s crippled security system that left a vault wide open — allowing at least one person to walk off with 40 million yen ($500,000), police said Tuesday.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writers Jeff Donn, Tomoko Hokasa, Shino Yuasa and Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo.