Govt spokesman: Crew ordered out as radiation levels rose earlier, reason for smoke unclear, possibly radioactive steam; Workers since returned to plant...
TEPCO releases photos of damage at Unit 4...
By Brad Friedman on 3/15/2011, 8:12pm PT  


The smoke seen rising above from Fukushima's Daiichi nuclear power planet is believed to be emanating from reactor Unit 3, according to the Japanese government's chief spokesperson Yukio Edano who just completed a press conference moments ago. Due to high radiation levels, all workers were evacuated from the plant, and all work suspended for a time. [Update: Reuters now confirms that workers were allowed back in after radiation levels fell, as we'd originally reported.]

Edano said that at approximately 8:30am local time, white smoke began coming out of the No. 3 reactor, but that the joint task force between the government and the plant's operators, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), are still trying to determine the cause. It's believed the smoke is actually vapor coming from a rupture in the reactor's containment vessel, he said. Steam was to be let out to allow workers to pump in more sea water in hopes of keeping the reactor cool.

Earlier today there were reports of rising radiation levels near the gate of the facility, leading to the evacuation of all workers at the plant, leaving no one to fight the fire. Last night, all but 50 workers had been evacuated after an explosion at Unit 2 and a fire at Unit 4 (which had been off-line for maintenance prior to last Friday's earthquake and tsunami, and storing spent fuel rods in a pool which may have caught fire.)

While workers had suspended operations, radiation levels have since begun to decrease, Edano said. They have now returned to continuing pumping sea water into Units 1, 2 and 3 in the ongoing attempts to cool down the reactors' fuel rods following failure of their emergency cooling systems.

At the same time, TEPCO released a photograph of the damage at the reactor Unit 4 building following the explosion there on Sunday...

Concerning reports of the possibility of using helicopters to spray water on the reactors, Edano said there were "risks" associated with adding great amounts of water at once, as well as concerns about the safety of the helicopter units. He said that experts were still considering that as an option, however, if it became necessary, but they hoped to continue supplying water slowly from the ground instead.

As of 10:54am, he said, the radiation levels had "been coming down rapidly." A reporter asked if the government might seek protective gear from the U.S. Military, and Edano replied that they are considering offers of help from them and other countries and that, according to the NHK World translator, "We might need the help of the U.S. Military."

On Sunday, after passing through a radioactive plume, the USS Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Pacific 7th Fleet, off shore for support in Japan, announced they would be repositioning to avoid further exposure.

Earlier today, there were reports of a fire at Unit 4, which had been off-line for maintenance prior to the earthquake and tsunami on Friday. Spent fuel rods are currently being stored at the No. 4 reactor which also caught fire yesterday and then, reportedly self-extinguished shortly thereafter. The fire there earlier today was also reported to have gone out by itself about 30 minutes after it flared up, as radiation levels were too high to allow fire fighters access to the facility.

The smoke seen billowing in the screen shot above, from NHK's live streaming video, is being shot by NHK's helicopter 30km's away. Last night, as we covered it live here, Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan asked for calm while expanding the evacuation zone around Fukushima to 20km, and asked those inside the 20 and 30km zone to stay indoors and close all doors and windows.

He said that the radiation levels had risen along with yesterday's fire at Unit 4 to levels that were dangerous to human health. Later, at the same press conference, Edano had said the radiation level had dropped, but that Units 5 and 6 (which had also been offline for maintenance) were also beginning to warm up.

The plant's 800 man crew was evacuated last night, leaving just 50 behind to manage the crisis at four, and now possibly all six, reactors at the Daiichi facility. That crew of 50 has, according to our best understanding of Edano's press conference tonight, suspended all operation at the plant until radiation measurements returned to an acceptable level. They have since, reportedly, returned to the crippled plant to continue their fight against ever growing concerns of a full meltdown of the fuel rods in any of the reactor units.

We'll update this item with new information as warranted. Follow breaking developments at Twitter here: @TheBradBlog...