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Japan races to restore power to crippled nuclear plant

Residents observes moment silence for victims March 11 earthquake tsunami shelter OfunaIwate Prefecture 2:46 p.m. Friday March 18 2011 time

Residents observes a moment of silence for victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at a shelter in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, at 2:46 p.m. on Friday, March 18, 2011 at the time when a strong earthquake hit northeastern Japan one week ago. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO LICENSING IN CHINA, HONG KONG, JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA AND FRANCE

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Updated: March 19, 2011 7:09AM

FUKUSHIMA, Japan — Emergency workers racing to cool dangerously overheated uranium fuel scrambled Saturday to connect Japan’s crippled reactors to a new power line, with electricians fighting tsunami-shattered equipment to restart the complex’s cooling systems.

Though the power line reached the complex Friday, making the final link without setting off a spark and potentially an explosion means methodically working through badly damaged and deeply complex electrical systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant on Japan’s northeast coast.

“Most of the motors and switchboards were submerged by the tsunami and they cannot be used,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Operators of the plant, which have prompted global worries of radiation leaks, hope to have power reconnected to four of the complex’s six units on Saturday, and another on Sunday. However, even once the power is reconnected, it is not clear if the cooling systems will still work.

The storage pools need a constant source of cooling water. Even when removed from reactors, uranium rods are still extremely hot and must be cooled for months, possibly longer, to prevent them from heating up again and emitting radioactivity.

Along the northeast coastline, meanwhile, where the tsunami killed thousands of people and obliterated entire villages, rescuers pulled a man alive from a wrecked house eight days after a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake began the cascade of catastrophes.

He was too weak to talk and transferred immediately to a hospital, a military official said, declining to be named because he was not authorized to speak with reporters. Japanese media reports said, however, that the man returned to the house a week after the disaster and was trapped only for one day.

As Japan crossed the one-week mark since the twin natural disasters spawned the nuclear crisis, the Japanese government conceded Friday it was slow to respond and welcomed ever-growing help from the United States in hopes of preventing a complete meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant.

The natural disasters claimed more than 7,200 lives, with many thousands more missing.

Emergency crews at the nuclear plant faced two continuing challenges: cooling the nuclear fuel in reactors where energy is generated and cooling the adjacent pools where thousands of used nuclear fuel rods are stored in water.

“In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and provided it faster,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Friday.

Also Friday, Japan’s government raised the accident classification for the nuclear crisis from Level 4 to Level 5 on a seven-level international scale. That put it on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, and signified its consequences went beyond the local area.

Edano also said Tokyo was asking Washington for additional help, a change from a few days ago, when Japanese officials disagreed with American assessments of the severity of the problem. AP

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