Dangerous operation indicates situation's increasing severity; Water cannon trucks from Tokyo Police dispatched to plant as well
UPDATE: Contrary to earlier reports, officials say water still in fuel storage pool at Unit 4, so water drops prioritized for Unit 3...
By Brad Friedman on 3/16/2011, 8:08pm PT  

At 9:48am local time, after authorities determined the situation at Fukushima's crippled and quickly over-heating nuclear reactors Unit 3 and 4 was bad enough to warrant it, they began dropping water from CH-47 Chinook helicopters onto the nuclear reactors, despite the considerable risks (to both crew and to the fuel rods in the reactor.) As of now, four drops have been made.

[Update: See video at bottom of article.]

This is a very very bad disaster movie. Water cannon trucks, usually used for crowd control, are now headed into the facility to spray water from a distance into the gaping holes previously blown out of the sides of the Unit 4 reactor where spent fuel rods are currently stored. Unit 4 was off-line for maintenance when last Friday's earthquake/tsunami struck, with highly volatile fuel rods being held in a fuel storage pool. That pool, usually filled with circulating water, is feared to have gone dry, potentially allowing the rods to heat, burn, and release enormous amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

Yesterday, chief government spokesman Yukio Edano said during his press conference that plans for similar helicopter water drops were canceled after it was determined they would be too dangerous. It was feared that quickly dropping large amounts of water could further destabilize the fuel rods and that slower, gradual pumping of water from the ground was preferred. Also, radiation exposure to helicopter crews was a concern as well.

That officials decided to go ahead with the helicopter drops today is likely an indication of the increasing severity of the growing crisis.

In an article today about the "Fukushima 50," the small crew currently left at the plant to tirelessly keep its six reactors from complete meltdown, the New York Times notes today that "helicopter pilots who flew through radiation-laden smoke spewing from the [Chernobyl] reactor to drop fire-extinguishing chemicals on it," were exposed to particularly high levels of radiation during that disaster 25 years ago next month.

Officials at Fukushima are saying that helicopter crews dropping water are outfitted in protective gear and may fly missions for a maximum of only 40 minutes each day to minimize their exposure. The drops are made more difficult, NHK World reports, by the need for the helicopters to keep moving as the water is being dropped, rather than hovering above the plants, as might otherwise be done during such drops.

Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Katazawa held a press conference within the past hour following completion off the four planned drops. He said that radiation levels were too high yesterday to carry out the plan, but that early today, in consultation with Prime Minister Natao Kan, the decision was made to carry out the drops. "We could not delay further, so we decided to execute the plan," NHK World's translators reported him as saying.

In a competing press conference at the same moment, Chief government spokesman Yukio Edano offered little new information other than to say President Obama and Kan had a thirty minute conversation earlier today. The President offered sympathy and support, including for the nuclear crisis. Edano said investigators are working to determine how successful the water drops were, and he confirmed that water cannon trucks from the Tokyo Police were en route to the nuclear plant. Fukushima is located some 180 miles north of Tokyo.

* * *

UPDATE 8:20pm PT: About thirty minutes after Edano finished, officials from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) spoke at their own news conference. They said that, contrary to earlier reports, they were able to determine that there was still some water left in the spent fuel storage ponds at Unit 4 and so it was decided to prioritize the initial water drops today onto reactor Unit 3.

UPDATE 9:42pm PT The Defense Minister has said there will be no more water drop attempts today.

UPDATE 11:08pm PT Video of the helicopter water drops now follows below...

Live streaming video coverage via NHK World here...
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