Wally Santana/Associated Press
TOKYO — A small crew of technicians braved radiation and fire through the day on Tuesday as they fought to prevent three nuclear reactors in northeastern Japan from melting down and to stop storage pools loaded with spent uranium fuel pods from bursting into flames.Officials with the Tokyo Electric Power Company announced Tuesday evening that they would consider using helicopters in an attempt to put cold water into a boiling rooftop storage pool for spent uranium fuel rods. The rods are still radioactive and potentially as hot and dangerous as the fuel rods inside the reactors if not kept submerged in water.
“The only ideas we have right now are using a helicopter to spray water from above, or inject water from below,” a power company official said at a news conference. “We believe action must be taken by tomorrow or the day after.”
Hydrogen gas bubbling up from chemical reactions set off by the hot spent fuel rods produced a powerful explosion on Tuesday morning that blew a 26-foot-wide hole in the outer building of Reactor No. 4 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. A fire there may have been caused by machine oil in a nearby facility, inspectors from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission said, according to an American official.
Concern remained high about the storage pools at that reactor and at two other reactors, Nos. 5 and 6. None of those three reactors at the plant, 140 miles northeast of Tokyo, were operating on Friday afternoon when an offshore earthquake with a magnitude now estimated at 9.0 suddenly shook the site. A tsunami with waves up to 30 feet high rolled into the northeast Japanese coastline minutes later, swamping the plant.
At least 750 workers were evacuated on Tuesday morning after a separate explosion ruptured the inner containment building at Reactor No. 2 at the Daiichi plant, which was crippled by Friday’s earthquake and tsunami. The explosion released a surge of radiation 800 times more intense than the recommended hourly exposure limit in Japan.
But 50 workers stayed behind, a crew no larger than would be stationed at the plant on a quiet spring day. Taking shelter when possible in the reactor’s control room, which is heavily shielded from radiation, they struggled through the morning and afternoon to keep hundreds of gallons of seawater a minute flowing through temporary fire pumps into the three stricken reactors, Nos. 1, 2 and 3, where overheated fuel rods continued to boil away the water at a brisk pace.
By early afternoon radiation levels had plunged, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Workers have released surges of radiation each time they bleed radioactive steam from the troubled reactors in an attempt to manage the pressure inside them, but the reactors are not yet releasing high levels of radiation on a sustained basis, Japanese officials said.
The United States military revised its plans as radiation from the plant worsened. Some American warships that had been expected to arrive at the tsunami-shattered northeast coast of Honshu Island were diverted to the west coast instead because of concerns about radiation, the Navy said.
The Navy also promised to continue relief missions even though several more helicopter crews were testing positive for low-level exposure to radiation, and even as American military personnel and their families at the Yokosuka and Atsugi bases were encouraged to take precautions against radiation exposure.
Late Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Naoto Kan warned in a nationally televised address of rising radiation.
The chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, urged people who live within about 18 miles of the plant to take precautions. “Please do not go outside, please stay indoors, please close windows and make your homes airtight,” Mr. Edano said. More than 100,000 people are believed to be in the area.
Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said at a news conference at the organization’s Vienna headquarters that there was a “possibility of core damage” at reactor No. 2, but that the damage “is estimated to be less than 5 percent of the fuel.”
The sudden turn of events, after an explosion on Monday at one reactor and then an early-morning explosion on Tuesday at yet another — the third in four days at the plant — had already made the crisis at the plant the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl reactor disaster a quarter-century ago. It had become impossible for workers to remain at many areas within the plant for extended periods, the agency said. Japan has requested assistance from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency.