TOKYO | Officials are struggling to prevent a meltdown of fuel rods in three of Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors, as rescue teams rushed supplies to survivors of Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami and a gruesome tide of bodies washed up on the beaches.
Early Tuesday morning, a third explosion rocked the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, the country’s nuclear safety agency said. The blast at Dai-ichi Unit 2 followed two hydrogen explosions at the plant — the latest on Monday as authorities struggled to prevent the catastrophic release of radiation in the area devastated by a tsunami.
The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said Tuesday’s explosion occurred near the suppression pool in the reactor’s containment vessel. The pool was later found to have a defect.
Meanwhile, fuel rods at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, about 170 miles northeast of Tokyo, were very “likely” melting, a government spokesman said late Monday. A meltdown poses the potential danger of radioactive gases escaping into the air.
“Although we cannot directly check it, it’s highly likely happening,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Ykio Edano told reporters.
He spoke after a hydrogen explosion had ripped through the building housing a reactor at Unit 3. On Saturday, a similar explosion hit Unit 1. However, officials were most concerned about the exposed fuel rods in Unit 2, where they feverishly pumped in water to cool the reactor.
“Units 1 and 3 are at least somewhat stabilized for the time being,” said Ryohei Shiomi of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Agency. “Unit 2 now requires all our effort and attention.”
The blast in Unit 3 actually lessened the pressure inside the reactor. The explosion injured 11 plant employees but left the crucial concrete containment shell over the reactor undamaged.
Meanwhile, hundreds of foreign rescue teams deployed to help Japanese soldiers and aid workers deal with the massive human tragedy from the three-pronged disaster. Millions of survivors have been without food, water or electricity since Friday.
The death toll is expected to hit 10,000, with most of the dead in the Miyagi prefecture at the epicenter of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami, which wiped out whole beach towns with 30-foot-high waves.
On one beach in Miyagi, about 2,000 bodies washed ashore, the Kyodo news agency reported Monday.
Since the earthquake struck Friday, Japan has been rocked by more than 300 powerful aftershocks, with one registering 6.4 magnitude.
Outside of the immediate disaster area, many Japanese were asking themselves whether to heed the calming words of the Japanese government, telling them to stay put to conserve energy, or follow the advice of foreign governments warning their citizens to flee the country.
Facing power shortages, the government asked workers to stay home Monday morning instead of using up scarce electricity on Tokyo’s spiderweb of trains and subways, which ran irregular services.
Yet many workers crowded around stations during morning and evening rush hours, saying they did not want to let down their co-workers and bosses. Unable to reach their jobs, other office workers spent a warm, sunny day on park benches.
Foreigners following the warnings of the French, German and other embassies to flee the Kanto area, which includes Tokyo and Yokahama, found it hard to catch trains or buses to the airport, where many waited in line for airlines to clear backlogs of delayed flights.
To save energy, companies, including carmakers Toyota and Honda, suspended production at factories, and department stores such as Mitsukoshimae shuttered their doors.
State broadcaster NHK planned to take two channels off the air for five hours after midnight Monday. Many downtown office employees worked in darkened rooms.
In the devastated Miyagi area, Canadian-born Blaise Plant of the popular Japanese rock band Monkey Majik tweeted from his home in the provincial capital, Sendai, that many people hoping to evacuate Sendai could not get out.
Like many others, he was jolted in the morning by an aftershock and frightened by false alarms about an impending tsunami.
“Just woke up, got some unconfirmed news that there is radiation in the atmosphere over Sendai, but a very small amount,” he tweeted from his home, where his phone would not work. “Waiting for gasoline outside, I can see the frustration and exhaustion in everyone’s eyes.”
Monday night, he described car lights piercing the total darkness, and drivers parking their vehicles in line-ups hoping to get gas in Tuesday morning to flee Sendai.
The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, meanwhile, announced on its website it had to reposition ships and aircraft because crew on the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft received tiny, non-threatening doses of radiation while at sea about 100 miles northeast of the troubled nuclear plant. Another 17 airmen flying relief missions on helicopters received small doses of radiation, which they removed by soap and water, the Navy said.
Many Tokyo residents originally from the stricken north, including Yujiro and Miyuki Hashimoto, worried about elderly parents unable to evacuate from homes near nuclear reactors because of fractured roads and dry pumps at closed gas stations.
“Shoganai,” they said in Japanese, after searching in vain for gasoline in a Tokyo suburb. “There’s nothing we can do.”