Japan says partial meltdown likely at reactor

Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear power plant
Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear power plant

TOKYO (AP) - Operators at a coastal nuclear power plant hit by Japan's earthquake and tsunami are frantically trying to keep temperatures down and prevent the disaster from growing even worse.

Japan's top government spokesman is warning of a fresh threat of explosion from a nuclear unit at a power plant the country's earthquake-ravaged northeast. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano says a hydrogen explosion could occur at Unit 3 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex. That would follow a blast the day before at the same power plant as operators attempted to prevent a nuclear meltdown of another unit by injecting sea water into it.

The growing crisis includes the threat of multiple meltdowns and officials say it's likely a partial meltdown is already happening at one unit. More than 170,000 people were evacuated as a precaution, though Edano said the radioactivity released so far into the environment is so small it does not pose any threat to human health.

"Because it's inside the reactor, we cannot directly check it, but we are taking measures on the assumption of the possible partial meltdown," Edano told reporters.

The Washington Post reported that emergency responders are making preparations to distribute potassium iodide pills to residents, used to slow intake of radiation, and were warning them to stay indoors.

According to media reports Saturday, even if the situation were stopped before a total meltdown occurred, Japan's nuclear emergency would be the third-most serious nuclear event in nuclear power history.

Meanwhile, Police in Japan's northeastern Miyagi prefecture say they estimate that the death toll in Miyagi alone will likely exceed 10,000. Miyagi is one of the areas worst affected by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that hit Friday.

Millions of survivors have no drinking water, electricity and proper food along the pulverized northeastern coast. Although the government doubled the number of soldiers deployed in the aid effort to 100,000, it seemed overwhelmed by what's turning out to be a triple disaster.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)