TOKYO, Japan — Power cables have been reconnected to all six reactors at Japan's stricken nuclear plant, a major breakthrough in bringing unstable reactors under control, officials said Tuesday as the facility's operator came under criticism for withholding information about safety violations and accidents.
The BBC said tests were still needed before power was restored to water pumps that will help cool over-heating atomic fuel rods.
Efforts to connect the cables were halted twice over the last 24 hours after steam and smoke were seen coming from two reactors and radiation levels spiked briefly, prompting engineers to pull out.
People around the world, including the Japanese prime minister, have accused the Tokyo Electric Power Co., called Tepco, of lacking candor during this incident and in the past, the Los Angeles Times reports.
It states that critics have long accused Japanese plant operators such as Tepco of having close relationships with regulators and thereby avoiding tough scrutiny of their operations.
In what appears to be an example of a lax regulatory environment, government regulators recently approved a 10-year extension of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant's oldest reactor despite safety concerns, the New York Times reports.
The committee that reviews extensions was aware of stress cracks in the backup engines. Those cracks are what make the engines, which are thought to have been knocked out by last week's tsunami, vulnerable to seawater and rainwater, it states.
After the extension was granted, Tepco admitted it failed to inspect dozens of pieces of equipment at the six reactors. Two weeks later, a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, knocking out the plant's cooling systems and triggering a nuclear emergency.
Tepco "is just like any other electric power company when it comes to accidents," Yukito Matsui, the head of an activist group, told the Los Angeles Times. "They aren't forthcoming. They won't tell you the truth."
Meanwhile, more than 300 engineers are working to contain the disaster at the plant by restoring power. That will enable the plant to restart the cooling systems, which will ideally bring cooling water to the overheated reactor cores and spent fuel rods that have been leaking radiation.
It could still take days to weeks to get the cooling systems working again, AP reports.
"We have experienced a very huge disaster that has caused very large damage at a nuclear power generation plant on a scale that we had not expected," Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told reporters Monday, as reported by AP.
News that workers were restoring power to the cooling systems at the plant was dampened Monday when a gray cloud of smoke was spotted wafting from its No. 3 reactor.
The smoke began rising just as Prime Minister Naoto Kan sought to reassure the public, saying at a news conference, “I can’t say we are out of critical condition, but we are seeing the light to get out of crisis."
Tepco reported that workers had to flee the site for fear of radioactivity and a possible explosion — similar to the one last week that blew the roof off one of the reactor.
Hours later once the smoke had cleared, workers had yet to return to the plant. “We shall consider the intention to go back to work or not after confirming the level of radioactivity,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the government's nuclear safety agency. He said he did not know what had caused the smoking.
The plant's workers are hoping to contain the radiation beyond the 20-mile “danger zone” that has been declared around the plant. The fear is that radiation may spread over a much wider area if the three crippled reactors are not cooled down soon enough.
Already — in yet another setback — "trace amounts” of radioactive iodine have been reported well outside the 20-mile radius.
Officials in Hitachi city 60 miles south of the Fukushima plant reported radioactive iodine at 27 times the acceptable level in spinach that was grown in the city. Technicians have recorded radioactive substances in surrounding regions from which the government is halting shipment of milk, spinach and other leafy vegetables.
Kan ordered the governors of the four hardest hit prefectures to restrict the shipments of vegetables and milk “detected to exceed the limit” of radioactive material. “In a wide area, we have across the board banned the shipments,” said a health official.
The loss of export markets for Japanese food jacked up the total cost of recovery from the earthquake and then the tsunami that swept over the northeastern coast on March 11. The World Bank estimated that recovery could cost $235 billion over a five-year period – nearly twice the estimate of $122 billion previously released by the government.
The human cost promises to be much higher. The national police now say the number of people killed or missing from the disaster is more than 22,000. The death toll reached 9,080, while the number of missing came to 13,561, Kyodo news said.
Additional reporting contributed by Hanna Ingber Win in Mumbai.