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Nuclear crisis a tangle of ominous, hopeful signs
A woman is scanned for radiation exposure at a temporary scanning center for residents living close to the quake-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Reiko Miura, 68, cries as she looks for her sister's son at a tsunami-hit area in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan, Wednesday, March 16, 2011, after Friday's earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)
This satellite photo taken Wednesday March 16, 2011 and provided by DigitalGlobe shows the damage after an earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant complex. The satellite image confirms damage to the Units 1, 3, and 4 reactor buildings.  Steam can be seen venting from the unit 2 reactor building, as well as from the Unit 3 reactor building. Additional damage can be seen to several other buildings approximately 350 meters north of the Unit 2 reactor building. (AP Photo/DigitalGlobe)
A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldier conducts a search operation following the March 11 earthquake triggered tsunami at Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
This image made available from Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Kyodo News, shows the damaged No. 4 unit of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okumamachi, northeastern Japan, on Tuesday March 15, 2011. White smoke billows from the No. 3 unit.  (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power  Co. via Kyodo News)
In this image released by Tokyo Electric Power Co., smoke billows from the No. 3 unit among four housings cover four reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, on Tuesday, March 15, 2011. Japan ordered emergency workers to withdraw from its stricken nuclear complex Wednesday amid a surge in radiation, temporarily suspending efforts to cool the overheating reactors. Hours later, officials said they were preparing to send the team back in. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)
A woman cries while talking on a free pay phone installed for earthquake/tsunami victims in Kesennuma, northern Japan, Wednesday, March 16, 2011, after Friday's earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/The Yomiuri Shimbun, Miho Ikeya)
Rescuers conduct search operation amidst smoldering debris in Kesennuma, northern Japan Monday, March 14, 2011 following Friday's massive earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. (AP Photo/Yomiuri Shimbun, Miho Ikeya)
A woman talks to Yuki Yamazaki, 3, held by his mother Yoshiko, when he meets his mother first time in four days in Yamada, northern Japan, Tuesday, March 15, 2011, after Friday's powerful earthquake-triggered tsunami hit the country's east coast. The tsunami also engulfed their home. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)
For many in Japan, little is left but wreckage and fear of radiation. (AP photo)
In the wake of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant disasters, Japanese also suffering from cold weather. (AP photo)
A woman holds her child at a shelter after being evacuated from areas around the Fukushima nuclear facilities damaged by last week's major earthquake and following tsunami, Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Fukushima city, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)
(Wally Santana  |  The Associated Press)  
A man is screened for radiation exposure at a shelter Wednesday after being evacuated from areas around the Fukushima nuclear facilities damaged by last week's major earthquake and following tsunami in Fukushima city, Fukushima prefecture, Japan.
A man is screened for radiation exposure at a shelter after being evacuated from areas around the Fukushima nuclear facilities damaged by last week's major earthquake and following tsunami, Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Fukushima city, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)
A boy waits in a line in front of a gas station in Kamaishi, northern Japan Monday, March 14, 2011 following Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Asahi Shimbun, Naoko Kawamura)
(Gregory Bull  |  The Associated Press)  
A woman holds her dog as they are scanned for radiation at a temporary scanning center for residents living close to the quake-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.
Ships are left aground among destroyed houses in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, Wednesday, March 16, 2011, five days after an earthquake-triggered tsunami devastated northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)
(Shizuo Kambayashi  |  The Associated Press)  
A construction laborer controls the traffic Wednesday at a devastated area in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan.
(Hiroaki Ono  |  The Associated Press)  
Firefighters search for missing people in Minamisanriku, northern Japan after Friday's earthquake and tsunami.
Chinese people crowd at a check-in counter at Niigata airport in Niigata to get out of Japan Wednesday, March 16, 2011 in fear of further earthquakes as well as deteriorating nuclear power plant incident following Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

UKUSHIMA, Japan

Nuclear plant operators trying to avoid complete reactor meltdowns said Thursday that they were close to finishing a new power line that could end Japan’s crisis, but several ominous signs have also emerged: a surge in radiation levels, unexplained white smoke and spent fuel rods that U.S. officials said might be on the verge of spewing more radioactive material.

As fear, confusion and unanswered questions swirled around the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex, and Japan suffered myriad other trials from last week’s earthquake and tsunami believed to have killed more than 10,000, its emperor took the unprecedented step of directly addressing his country on camera, urging his people not to give up.

“It is important that each of us shares the difficult days that lie ahead,” Akihito said Wednesday. “I pray that we will all take care of each other and overcome this tragedy.”

The 77-year-old emperor expressed his own deep concern about the “unpredictable” nuclear crisis. “With the help of those involved I hope things will not get worse,” he said.

Story continues below

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said at a congressional hearing in Washington that all the water is gone from the spent fuel storage pond of Fukushima Dai-ichi’s Unit 4 reactor, but Japanese officials denied it. Hajime Motojuku, a spokesman for plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., said the “condition is stable” at Unit 4.

Earlier, however, another utility spokesman said officials’ greatest concerns were the spent fuel pools, which lack the protective shells that reactors have.

“We haven’t been able to get any of the latest data at any spent fuel pools. We don’t have the latest water levels, temperatures, none of the latest information for any of the four reactors,” Masahisa Otsuki said.

If Jaczko is correct, it would mean there’s nothing to stop the used fuel rods from getting hotter and ultimately melting down. The outer shells of the rods could also ignite with enough force to propel the radioactive fuel inside over a wide area.

“My understanding is there is no water in the spent fuel pool,” Jaczko told reporters after the hearing. “I hope my information is wrong. It’s a terrible tragedy for Japan.”

He said the information was coming from NRC staff in Tokyo who are working with the utility in Japan. He said the staffers continue to believe the spent fuel pool is dry.

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