Smoke begins billowing from reactors 3 and 4 this morning causing evacuation of emergency personnel. Power returned to reactors 1 and 2. Japanese officials are being tight lipped on the reason for the new smoke.

By Yuji Okada and Tsuyoshi Inajima – // Mar 21, 2011

Bloomberg

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he can see “light at the end of the tunnel” as workers at the troubled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant reconnected power to two of the failed reactors.

In a flurry of announcements today, Kan said progress was being made in restoring power to reactors No. 1 and No. 2, while Tokyo Electric Power Co. said it had connected No. 3 and No 4. Minutes later, state broadcaster NHK said engineers were evacuated as gray smoke was seen billowing from reactor 3.

As the battle to prevent a meltdown enters its 11th day, Kan’s signs of optimism are the strongest from a Japanese official amid the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years. Temperatures of pools holding spent fuel rods have cooled in the past 24 hours, indicating the effect of thousands of tons of sea water sprayed over the reactors since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which knocked out cooling systems and water pumps.

“While we haven’t reached the point where we can say we’ve gotten out of this crisis situation, it can be said that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kan said at the beginning of a meeting of his crisis response team at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo.

Nikkei 225 Stock Average futures expiring in June jumped 2.7 percent to 9,415 in Singapore after Tepco said it connected a power cable from reactor 3 to 4. Japan’s markets were closed for a public holiday today.

Radiation Levels

The death toll from the nation’s worst postwar disaster rose to 8,649 as of 3 p.m. local time with a further 13,262 people missing, according to the National Police Agency in Tokyo. The earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated the country’s northern coastline and forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said radiation levels found in Japanese food aren’t harmful while fuel shipments at Sendai Shiogama Port resumed and roads to the worst-hit areas reopened, adding to signs the crisis may be passing its peak.

Japan’s nuclear safety agency said the nation will limit distribution of spinach and milk after samples from the area near the plant were found to have higher-than-normal radiation levels.

At the stricken nuclear plant 135 miles (220 kilometers) north of Tokyo, workers were evacuated from reactor No. 3 after smoke was seen rising from the roof of the building at around 5 p.m. today, the nuclear safety agency said. Radiation levels hadn’t increased at the unit, the agency doesn’t know the cause of the smoke and is investigating, spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said. Smoke was also seen rising from reactor No. 2 at 6:20 p.m., Tepco Vice President Sakae Muto told reporters. He said the cause was being investigated.

Water Dousing

Troops and firefighters have sprayed seawater on the reactor buildings from fire engines, sometimes for as long as eight hours at a time, for the past six days in attempts to refill storage pools, prevent fuel rods overheating and causing further radiation leaks.

Using a helicopter with infrared equipment, officials determined that cooling pools holding spent-fuel rods atop the plant’s six reactors were below 100 degrees Celsius (212 Fahrenheit), the boiling point of water, Japan Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said last night in a news conference.

Nuclear industry regulators in Japan and the U.S. have said one of the greatest risks is that storage pools may not have enough water to cover the hot plutonium rods. If exposed to air, the rods could decay, catch fire and blow radioactive pollution into the sky.

Yen Weakens

The yen weakened for a second day, while stocks and commodities advanced as Japan’s progress in cooling the nuclear reactors helped spur investor confidence. Japan’s currency slid 0.6 percent to 81.04 per dollar at 4 p.m. in Hong Kong.

More than 400 workers are at the site, with an additional 573 people at the nearby Dai-Ni power plant, Tepco said. Toshiba Corp., Japan’s biggest maker of nuclear reactors, said it dispatched 100 workers to Fukushima today and has assigned 700 engineers to help Tepco. Hitachi Ltd. deployed 120 employees to work there.

Radiation measured in Tokyo increased to 0.0703 microgray per hour between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. local time today from 0.0458 at the same time yesterday. In Kitaibaraki City, located between Tokyo and the plant, radiation was at 1.080 microgray from 0.956 on March 20. An X-ray typically has 100 microgray of radiation.

Forecasts of snow in northern Japan early tomorrow may complicate efforts to provide support to refugees scattered among as many as 2,000 temporary shelters in quake-affected areas. Temperatures in Sendai reached a high of 9 degrees Celsius (48.2 degrees Fahrenheit) today with a chance of snow tomorrow and a low of 0 degrees Celsius in some areas, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.

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