TOKYO — Emergency workers lost precious hours Monday in their fight to prevent a full-scale meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after mysterious gray smoke seen emanating from the facility prompted a mass evacuation.
The smoke was spotted just before 4 p.m. coming out of the building that houses the No. 3 reactor, the most badly damaged of the plant’s half-dozen reactors. It tapered off after two hours, but more smoke was seen near reactor No. 2 about 20 minutes later, according to officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO).
Though authorities concluded the smoke was steam and not coming from the overheated spent fuel pool, they acknowledged that radiation spiked one kilometer west of the facility, rising from 494 microsieverts at 5:40 p.m. to 1,932 at 6:30 p.m.
The level dropped to 442 at 8:30 p.m., but officials suspended operations for the day until further notice and the 700 employees who had been working to restore electrical power at the plant were evacuated.
“If we find the levels of radioactivity go down, we’ll go back to work,” Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said at a news conference Monday night at the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo.
The setback stopped momentum that had been building after workers had sprayed 3,200 tons of water on reactors Nos. 3 and 4 over the weekend to cool the spent fuel rods. Deputy Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama had said Sunday that TEPCO was “very close to getting the situation under control.” Reactors No. 5 and 6 had successfully been placed in cold shutdown and were no longer considered a danger to public health.
Despite the setback, a top U.S. nuclear power official said Monday that the situation appeared to be stabilizing. William Borchardt, executive director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Operations, cited progress workers had made to connect new power lines to the facility for the first time since it was crippled by the earthquake and tsunami.
“The fact that off-site power is close to being available for use of plant equipment is perhaps the first optimistic sign that things could be turning around,” Borchardt said at an NRC hearing outside Washington on the crisis. “I would say optimistically things appear to be on the verge of stabilizing.”
The muddled emergency effort came as the World Bank estimated that the March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused up to $235 billion in damages, making the natural disaster one of the most expensive in modern history.
The rebuilding effort could take five years, the bank said in its report, and will cost far more than earthquakes in Haiti last year and Kobe, Japan in 1995, as well as Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005 and the tsunami in South Asia in 2004.
“While it is too early to estimate accurately, the cost of the damage is likely to be greater than the damage caused by the 6.9 magnitude Kobe earthquake,” the World Bank concluded. It placed the Kobe damages at $100 billion and estimated the total cost of the current disaster at between $122 billion and $235 billion.
So far, 8,649 people have died and another 13,262 are missing since the 9.0-magnitude quake struck off the coast near Sendai, Japan’s National Police Agency said. Nearly 350,000 others have been placed in shelters in the region and as far away as Tokyo, and 120,000 members of Japan’s Self Defense Forces are participating in the relief effort.
Martin Faller, head of the East Asia regional delegation of the International Red Cross, said Monday that the most pressing issue for displaced people in the shelters was a lack of heat because fuel remained scarce. While food has become more plentiful, he added, medicine for the large number of elderly people in the region was running low.
“It was really cold in the operation shelters, logistics had broken down, fuel and kerosene were difficult to get,” Faller said in an interview. “Electricity has gone down, so for schools and communities heated by electricity, that’s a big problem.”
Meantime, government authorities said they have banned the sale of raw milk and spinach from several prefectures after they were found to contain excessive levels of radiation. Though officials said the amounts still did not pose a threat to people’s health if consumed, they decided to take action until the radiation levels return to normal.
Government scientists are now examining fish and shellfish, said Yoshifumi Kaji, director of the inspection and safety division of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
The health ministry called on local governments on Monday to advise residents to stop giving babies water in forms such as baby formula if radioactive iodine is found in drinking water at elevated levels, the Kyoto news service reported.
“Babies can easily absorb radioactive iodine in their thyroid glands,’’ the agency quoted a ministry official saying.
Greater amounts of radioactive iodine and cesium were found in rain, dust and particles in the air in some areas over a 24-hour period from Sunday morning due to rainfall, agency reported.
In Vienna, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Monday that the Japanese nuclear crisis exposed serious problems in how governments respond to disasters, AP reported. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, who visited Japan last week, told an emergency meeting of the agency that governments must release information more quickly.
The World Bank said the economic consequences of the disaster could drive Japan’s bond yields down, but that it would have only “a modest short-term impact” on the broader East Asian region.
“After the Kobe earthquake, Japan’s trade slowed only for a few quarters before recovering,” the bank said. “Within a year, imports had recovered fully and exports had rebounded to 85 percent of pre-quake levels.”
Though estimates vary, Hurricane Katrina caused $81.2 billion in damages in 2005, according to a widely cited study by the National Hurricane Center. Last year, the costs of natural disasters soared to a worldwide total of $109 billion, three times the total in 2009, according to the United Nations. In 2010, the Haiti quake cost $8 billion, floods in Pakistan $9.5 billion and an 8.8-magnitude quake in Chile $30 billion.
The 2004 tsunami caused between $8 billion and $15 billion in damages across India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, according to various estimates.