Nuclear crisis focus shifts to preventing explosions
TOKYO — After notching a rare victory by stopping highly radioactive water from flowing into the Pacific on Wednesday, workers at Japan’s flooded nuclear power complex turned to their next task: injecting nitrogen to prevent more hydrogen explosions.
Nuclear officials said there was no immediate threat of explosions like the three that rocked the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant not long after a massive tsunami hit on March 11, but their plans are a reminder of how much work remains to stabilize the complex.
Workers are racing to cool down the plant’s reactors, which have been overheating since power was knocked out by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that killed as many as 25,000 people and destroyed hundreds of miles of coastline.
Unable to restore normal cooling systems because water has damaged them and radioactivity has made conditions dangerous, workers have resorted to pumping water into the reactors and letting it gush wherever it can.
Superheated fuel rods can pull explosive hydrogen from cooling water, so now that more water is going into the reactors, the concern is that hydrogen levels are rising.
Technicians began pumping nitrogen into an area around one of the plant’s six reactors at 1:31 a.m. Thursday (1631 Wednesday GMT; 12:31 p.m. Wednesday EDT) to counteract the hydrogen, said Makoto Watanabe, a spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. They want to prevent hydrogen explosions that could spew radiation and damage the reactors.
The nitrogen pumping also has risks, but the nuclear agency approved it as a necessary measure to avoid danger, spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said. The injection could release radioactive vapour into the environment, but residents within 12 miles (20 kilometres) of the plant have been evacuated.
The government said Wednesday it might consider expanding that zone, though not because of the nitrogen injection. An expansion might not necessarily mean the radiation that has been spewing into the air and water from the plant is getting worse. The effects of radiation are determined by both the strength of the dose and the length of exposure, so the concern is that people farther away might start being affected as the crisis drags on.
Insiders fear for safety in Libya: defector
LONDON — Libya’s former-energy minister said Wednesday that several members of Moammar Gadhafi’s inner circle want to defect, but many are too scared to abandon the dictator fearing the safety of themselves and their families.
Omar Fathi bin Shatwan, who also served as industry minister, told the Associated Press that he had fled by fishing boat to Malta on Friday from the western Libyan city of Misrata.
Shatwan, who left the government in 2007, said he still had contact with some government figures and explained that many feared for their safety. In some cases, their families are under siege, he said.
“Those whose families are outside Libya will flee if they get a chance,” Shatwan said. “But many can’t leave, and all the families of ministers are under siege.”
Shatwan said he had last had contact with Gadhafi in 2006, and had not spoken with the tyrant’s sons since leaving office. “Ministers who are friends of mine, I have spoken to them,” he said.
The 59-year-old said he had spent 40 days at his home in Misrata before escaping from Libya, and witnessed Gadhafi’s forces pounding the city with heavy artillery and relentlessly shooting civilians.
“There has been a big bombardment and there is total destruction,” Shatwan said, speaking by telephone from Malta. “After this, they occupied some streets with tanks, and put snipers in the buildings.”
He said Gadhafi’s forces — which he said were mainly foreign mercenaries led by a small number of Libyans — had fired on civilians indiscriminately inside Misrata.
Shatwan described tanks rolling along the city’s Tripoli Street — a major thoroughfare — and regime soldiers turning their weapons on anyone in the vicinity. “They have killed a lot of civilians, whether they are in cars, or are moving targets — they just shoot at them,” he said.
He claimed that local people had been fired on as they attempted to rush to safety, and that regime soldiers had wildly discharged their weapons inside the city.
“I think the regime is just going mad,” Shatwan said. “Col. Gadhafi has changed. No one would kill people in the streets in this way.”
He estimated at least 1,500 people are dead or wounded in Misrata, but said it is almost impossible to know the precise death toll
Negotiations continue as U.S. shutdown looms
WASHINGTON — Struggling to avert a government shutdown, Republicans and Democrats each said Wednesday the other would be to blame if compromise talks on the budget fail.
“Democrats’ bottom line hasn’t changed. Republicans’ bottom line hasn’t stayed still,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, one day after meeting privately with House Speaker John Boehner to try and get talks back on track.
The Nevada Democrat said Boehner “has a choice to make . . . he can do either what the tea party wants, or what the country needs.”
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a different analysis.
Democrats “still haven’t come up with an alternative to the various Republican proposals we’ve seen to keep the government up and running in the current fiscal year,” the Kentucky Republican said.
“They’ve just sat on the sidelines taking potshots at everything Republicans have proposed while rooting for a shutdown,” he said.’
The government faces a partial shutdown Friday at midnight if Congress doesn’t take action to avoid one. Negotiations on legislation to keep federal agencies running is hung up over negotiations over a Republican demand for steep spending cuts.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, claimed “a glimmer of hope” Wednesday morning, based on late-night negotiations between Senate Democrats and House Republicans.
The White House was said to be trying to assess the extent of progress, if any, before setting up another meeting like the one President Barack Obama hosted on Tuesday. A White House official said an Obama-led meeting could happen Wednesday.
Appearing on a network morning news show, Schumer said “some progress was made” in talks late Tuesday and said “we’ve met the other side more than half way” at $33 billion in proposed cuts.
But the New York Democrat also said that if talks collapse and a government shutdown happens, it will be the tea party’s fault.
He said tea party-backed Republicans in the House “have demanded that cuts be in a very small portion of the budget,” such as cancer research, student aid and public broadcasting. He said tea party Republicans “have an ideology to just get rid of all government,” regardless of whether programs are working.
Boat carrying immigrants capsizes
ROME — A boat carrying as many as 300 migrants from Libya capsized in rough seas off the Italian coast early Wednesday, leaving 250 people unaccounted for. Survivors told of desperately trying to reach rescue boats as those unable to swim screamed in the darkness and pulled one another under the water.
If the number of dead is confirmed, it would be the deadliest crossing to Italy in recent memory, and the worst refugee disaster since a wave of migrants began arriving on Italian shores in January.
The Italian coast guard rescued 48 people and a fishing boat picked up another three after the boat began taking on water shortly after 1 a.m.
Survivors told The International Organization for Migration they swam toward approaching coast guard vessels, but many others drowned because they couldn’t swim or were dragged back by screaming fellow passengers.
Simona Moscarelli, the IOM’s Italy representative, told Sky TG24 that many survivors had their pants torn off as they tried to swim toward rescue boats, as those left behind grabbed onto anything they could.
The commander of a fishing boat that rescued three people described what he said was a terrifying scene.
“What we saw was incredible: Heads were coming in and out (of the water) and people were screaming,” Francesco Rifiorito told ANSA. “We did all we could.”