(Image, from NHK TV: A Japan Self-Defense Force helicopter collects seawater from Japan's northeast coast, en route to aerial operations over the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.)
About two hours ago, between 9am and 10am local time in Japan, emergency operations to drop water on to the Fukushima nuclear plant began: specifically, the No. 3. and 4 reactor buildings, including the depleted water pool in which spent fuel is stored. Without water, the fear is that this spent fuel would enter a state that would cause a catastrophic, massive release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. Government officials say this pool in reactor No. 4. seems to still contain some water, which is positive news; Water levels in no. 3, however, are very low or may be empty, so right now the focus is on No. 3. Immediately after the first phase of aerial water drop operations concluded, Japan's Defense Minister and government spokesman Yukio Edano gave press conferences, followed by a TEPCO press conference. Notes here are hastily transcribed from live broadcast on Japan's NHK TV.
Japan Defense Minister Minister Toshimi Kitazawa press conference:
He confirms that the water drop operations have begun, says the monitoring of results is ongoing. Says previously, they believed that radiation levels were too high for air or ground water drop operations, but decision was made today that attempts could not be delayed any further given the grave nature of the situation.
"Based on the report issued by the government task force on the nuclear crisis," the Defense Minister says, "We decided early morning today to execute this plan."
The Tokyo Police force will also conduct ground operations, using water cannons, in afternoon, he says. A total of 11 specially-equipped vehicles will be used to spray water on the crippled reactors at Fukushima-1.
"We believe that this will help to cool down the fuel, but we cannot set foot on to the site," says the defense minister. "Based on the data we will be receiving from the government task force, we will be able to verify whether the mission has been met with success. We will consider future aerial operations as necessary.
Notes from press conference with Yukio Edano, spokesman for government of Japan:
"Prime Minister Kan and US President Barack Obama spoke on the phone today [for some 30 minutes].
"Obama offered support, including support related to the nuclear power plants, and longer term rehabilitation and construction initiatives. Prime Minister Kan expressed his gratitude. "
"We have concluded this morning's operations. The self defense forces conducted aerial spraying from the air, and the police will start spraying water from the water cannon trucks. We are trying to combine these approaches to maximize results. We are asking people in the peripheral areas to evacuate, and those within 20-30 km of the plant are asked to stay inside.
Some evacuees may need extra support: people who are ill, pregnant women, they will need extra care. We will do our best to give all-out support to those who are vulnerable. We ask those in the medical and nursing professions to do all they can to help these evacuees."
[A question from a reporter: "There has been testimony from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission today that the water in the spent fuel pool has been totally depleted. Where did this statement come from, was it based on information from the government of Japan?"]
Edano: "We have provided detailed data to US experts. We are trying to coordinate information on a timely basis so analysis can be conducted based on more accurate information, but there is always a time lag, especially with regard to reactor No. 4, the question of whether the water there has been depleted. There has been a time lag in providing info to the US authorities.
[A question: "The US embassy in Japan has issued an advisory to citizens to evacuate from 80km from the site, which is more than Japan's advisory. Why?"]
Edano: "If there are circumstances that require evacuation, not just a nuclear accident, foreign governments should give such advisories to protect their nationals. They are an outside government not in direct control, so it is reasonable that they take a more conservative approach [than we do]. As for the radius in their advisory: we have been monitoring the radioactive levels, and we are gathering data that will later be disclosed by the science and technology agency. We have issued our advisory accordingly."
"The allies, in providing these measures, will not fan the anxiety of the residents of the immediate area. Obama has spoken to Prime Minister Kan just today and we will maintain close communication."
[A Mainichi reporter asks: DoD says they will not allow military officers to enter within 90km of the Fukushima facility.]
Edano: "We are not aware of this."
TEPCO press conference, spokesperson speaking:
Starting at 948am we began the water drop operations.
Situation as of 9am at No. 3 reactor, as we have already informed you, if you could look at the brochures we have provided: at 830am on Mar 16 we saw vapor or smoke rising so we moved workers to a safer place and decided to drop water from the air. But the situation was too dangerous so it was suspended. So we began preparing to spray the Reactor No. 3 site from the ground [there is concern that the fuel rods there may be partially exposed].
At 545 on March 16, yesterday, a fire broke out at the No. 4 reactor. Shortly after 6am our employee could not check the flame. There is still water in the spent fuel pond.
We rescued 11 people from the Daiichi and Daini plants, one person complaining of chest pain has been moved to the hospital.
We are dropping sea water. From 930 to just after 10am, we conducted 4 drops of 7.5 tons of water each. We started with Reactor No. 3. Yesterday, we monitored from the helicopter; the Reactor No. 3 and 4.
Some water cannon trucks arrived at Fukushima yesterday, others arrived today. They are headed to Fukushima Daiichi. 13 crew members of the police will operate them.
We have been able to confirm that there is water in the spent nuclear fuel pond, but we don't know how much. We don't know yet if the rods are exposed. This information is as of yesterday, when we conducted the aerial survey.