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Typhoon Roke Pounds Japan's Main Land And A Fragile Fukushima Nuclear Plant

By Theodora Filis

Wednesday, September 21, 2011, a powerful typhoon struck Japan, stranding thousands of commuters and pouring heavy rain on the already stricken and fragile Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Halting trains and stranding tens of thousands of commuters,Typhoon Roke, barreled down toward the tsunami-ravaged northeastern coast. Police and local media have reported people being swept away by rivers swollen with heavy rains.

With sustained winds of up to 144 kph, the typhoon made landfall just after 2pm near the city of Hamamatsu, about 200 kilometers west of Tokyo. The center of the fast-moving storm passed just north of the capital. Japanese authorities have called for more than a million people to be evacuated in central and eastern Japan.

The storms course took it near the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where a small amount of radiation is still leaking after three of its reactors melted down when the tsunami cut off power to the plant and its back-up generators in March. Workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant raced against time to ready the crippled plant. Efforts were made to ensure radiation was not "whipped up" by the strong winds.

“We have taken every possible measure against the typhoon,” said Naoki Tsunoda, a spokesman at Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the operator of the power plant. “We have tied down cables and hoses while fixing equipment so that radioactive materials would not spread (in violent winds),” he said, adding operations on the ground and at sea had been suspended – tarpaulin was placed over holes in the buildings to limit the amount of water getting inside. TEPCO believes the tidal barriers built after the March tsunami were sufficient to protect – no extra sandbags were being put in place.

Japan’s minister, Goshi Hosono, in charge of handling the Fukushima nuclear crisis told a gathering of the UN atomic agency Monday his country would have a “safer” future.
“I am convinced we will definitely overcome this challenge and find a prosperous, safer nuclear future,” said Hosono at the 151-nation International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) general conference in Vienna, adding Japan would benefit “from the lessons learned” from the March disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. “In Japan, there is a kind of consensus that we would like to reduce the dependency on nuclear power. But the speed and the method by which that would be achieved, to attain such a target has yet to be identified.”

Six months after the massive earthquake and tsunami that caused the disaster at the four-decades-old plant, emergency crews are still struggling to stop radiation seeping out. Hosono said the government and plant operator, TEPCO, hoped to achieve a stable cold shutdown by the end of the year. He said lowering temperatures below the boiling point at the reactors would reduce the danger of further meltdown and release of additional radioactivity from the fuel rods inside.

“There are a number of measures needed ... and this will take some time,” Hosono told reporters through an interpreter. “Japanese government last week submitted to the IAEA a new in-depth report on the crisis, which was presented by Japanese officials to the agency on Monday.” This report follows the first one in June, said that “stable progress” has been made at the stricken plant, with the amount of radioactive material released and radiation exposure to workers “significantly reduced.” It also gave an update on what was being done to decontaminate the surrounding area, as well as plans for what to do with the plant once the reactors have been stabilized.

Critics say the 12-point plan falls well short of promises made in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, which sparked worries worldwide about nuclear power, and that the steps it suggests are voluntary. Original plans, such as mandatory “peer reviews” of reactors by foreign experts and 10% of the planet’s plants being inspected in the next three years, were watered down.

France, for example, wanted the action plan to be tougher, and Energy Minister, Eric Besson, called Monday at the IAEA for peer reviews to become standard practice worldwide by mid-2012, and for their results to be published. Last week, the world’s nuclear power plant exporters announced, in Washington, a first-ever code of conduct which they hope will raise safety standards, prevent proliferation and enhance environmental protection.

Unfortunately, commitments by firms such as France’s Areva, US/Japanese firm GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and US giant Westinghouse, three years in the making, are not legally binding.

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