Japan nuclear crisis update: "Frantic" efforts continue, "Chernobyl solution" not ruled out

An update on the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan, damaged after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit, and now leaking radiation with no power and no clear way to cool down fuel rods and spent fuel:

• Above, partial screengrab from a chart showing radiation readings for Japan by prefecture. Spotted in the Twitter stream of VOA correspondent Steve Herman, who adds, "[Note that there are] NO readings posted any longer from here in Fukushima-ken."

• The official death toll from the tsunami and earthquake in Japan: 6,405. Approximatelyl 16,000 are believed missing or unaccounted for.

• In a press briefing, Japan's nuclear safety agency stated that it was aware of the so-called "Chernobyl solution" — covering it in sand and encasing it in concrete. But for now, the government is focusing on efforts to restore power and cool down the reactors. In the same briefing, the agency acknowleged that there is either smoke or steam rising from the No. 2 reactor; could be either the spent fuel pool or an explosion in the suppression chamber, nobody knows yet.

• In a separate press conference, a government spokesman said that work at Fukushima today was focused on restoring electrical power needed to cool the crippled plant. (As I understand it, this would involve an electrical cable about a half a mile long.–XJ) Without power, emergency efforts over the past 24 hours included the extraordinary and unprecedented attempt to re-fill cooling pools by dropping water from helicopters and spraying it from water cannon trucks. More on the effort to restore power in this Reuters item.

• The New York Times describes repair efforts as "frantic": "The first readings from American data-collection flights over the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan show that the worst contamination has not spread beyond the 19-mile range of highest concern established by Japanese authorities. But another day of frantic efforts to cool nuclear fuel in the stricken reactors and the plant's spent-fuel pools resulted in little or no progress, according to United States government officials." See also this excellent infographic feature at the Times with current status of each of the reactors, and this very detailed map of the evacuation zone, with corresponding radiation levels.

• The head of the IAEA, the UN's nuclear watchdog agency, will meet on this afternoon with Japan's Prime Minister Kan to discuss the nuclear crisis. (Kyodo)

• During a press conference held by Yukio Edano, the Japan government spokesperson says the nation has not turned down offers of assistance in the nuclear crisis from the US, and that they've been requesting help.

• Edano also said that general radiation levels are still not at a level that poses a threat to human health. With regard to the operations over the past two days: water levels at the cooling pool at Reactor No. 3, which has been of great concern, have risen after aerial drops and water cannon sprays–but they are not sure how much.

The commander of US military forces in the Pacific gave a briefing today on efforts to help Japan.

• TEPCO, the company that operates the Fukushima plant, also gave a press conference today. They hope to get power to reactors No. 1 and 2 today; 3 and 4 by Saturday March 20. TEPCO has 50 workers at the plant, working in shifts to keep radiation exposure to each individual down as much as possible.