The risk of a meltdown spread to a third reactor at a stricken nuclear power plant in Japan on Monday as its cooling systems failed, exposing its fuel rods, only hours after a second explosion at a separate reactor blew the roof off a containment building.
The widening problems underscored the difficulties the Japanese authorities are having in bringing several damaged reactors under control four days after a devastating earthquake killed at least 10,000 people.
Operators fear that if they cannot establish control, the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear complex, 240 km north of Tokyo, could experience full meltdowns, which could release catastrophic amounts of radiation. The two reactors where the explosions occurred are both presumed to have already suffered partial meltdowns - a dangerous situation that can lead to full meltdowns.
Rescue workers combed the tsunami-battered region north of Tokyo for survivors and struggled to care for millions of people without power and water.Officials say at least 10,000 people were likely killed in the 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that followed it. Kyodo news agency reported that 2,000 bodies had been found on Monday in two coastal towns alone. "It's a scene from hell, absolutely nightmarish," said Patrick Fuller of the International Red Cross Federation from the northeastern coastal town of Otsuchi.
Another explosion at the Fukushima complex on Monday sent a huge plume of smoke billowing above the plant.
IAEA head Yukiya Amano said the reactor vessels of nuclear plants remained intact, and so far, the amount of radiation that had been released was limited. Japan, he said, had officially asked the UN atomic watchdog to send a team of experts to help in current nuke crisis.
The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), said fuel rods at the No. 2 reactor were fully exposed, which could lead to the rods melting down.
The rods, normally surrounded by water, were partially exposed after the engine-powered pump pouring in this water ran out of fuel. TEPCO said it was preparing to pump more cooling water.
There were earlier partial meltdowns of the fuel rods at both the No. 1 and the No. 3 reactors, where the explosions had occurred, and a TEPCO official described the situation in the No. 2 reactor was even worse than in the other units.
Crucially, officials said the thick walls around the radioactive cores of the damaged reactors appeared to be intact.
But the government warned those still in the 20-km evacuation zone to stay indoors. TEPCO said 11 people had been injured in the blast. Kyodo said 80,000 people had been evacuated from the zone, joining more than 450,000 other evacuees from the affected areas.
(With inputs from NYT, AFP)