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Saturday, March 19, 2011

U.S. Missiles Strike Libyan Air-Defense Targets - NYTimes.com

U.S. Missiles Strike Libyan Air-Defense Targets - NYTimes.com

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, STEVEN ERLANGER and ELISABETH BUMILLER
This article is by David D. Kirkpatrick, Steven Erlanger and Elisabeth Bumiller.

TRIPOLI, Libya — American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Saturday, unleashing warplanes and missiles in a military intervention on a scale not seen in the Arab world since the Iraq war.

The mission to impose a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone and keep Colonel Qaddafi from using air power against beleaguered rebel forces was portrayed by Pentagon and NATO officials as under French and British leadership.

But the Pentagon said that American forces were mounting an initial campaign to knock out Libya’s air defense systems, firing volley after volley of Tomahawk missiles from nearby ships against missile, radar and communications centers around Tripoli, the capital and the western cities of Misurata and Surt.

Early Sunday, the sound of antiaircraft fire and screaming fighter jets echoed across Tripoli, punctuated by heavy explosions.

Speaking on Libyan state television, Colonel Qaddafi said the international action against his forces was unjustified, calling it “simply a colonial crusader aggression that may ignite another large-scale crusader war.”

Muhammad Zweid, secretary of the Libyan Parliament, said the intervention had “caused some real harm against civilians and buildings.” But he declined to specify which civilian buildings or locations were hit.

Later, state TV quoted the armed forces command as saying 48 people had been killed and 150 wounded. The accuracy of the report could not be verified.

Officials took pains to show reporters a group of civilians whom they portrayed as volunteers who had flocked to Mr. Qaddafi’s compound to shield him from the attacks. President Obama, speaking during a visit to Brazil, reiterated promises that no American ground forces would be used.

“I am deeply aware of the risks of any military action, no matter what limits we place on it,” he said. “I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice, and it’s not a choice that I make lightly. But we can’t stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.”

The campaign began with French warplanes, which started their attacks even before the end of an emergency meeting among allied leaders in Paris. The officials, reacting to news that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces were attacking the rebel capital of Benghazi despite international demands for a cease-fire, said they had no choice but to defend Libyan civilians and opposition forces.

But there were signs of disagreement among the allies in Paris. Some diplomats said that French insistence on the meeting had delayed military action against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces before they reached Benghazi, a charge that French officials denied.

Benghazi residents interviewed by telephone reported a relentless artillery barrage before government tanks entered the city from the west on Saturday morning. There was heavy fighting in the city center, and pro-Qaddafi snipers could be seen on the building that the rebel council used as a foreign ministry, not far from the courthouse that is the council’s headquarters.

“Our assessment is that the aggressive actions by Qaddafi forces continue in many places around the country,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after the Paris meeting. “We saw it over the last 24 hours, and we’ve seen no real effort on the part of the Qaddafi forces to abide by a cease-fire, despite the rhetoric.”

Western leaders acknowledged, though, that there was no endgame beyond the immediate United Nations authorization to protect Libyan civilians, and it was uncertain that even military strikes would force Colonel Qaddafi from power.

Many of the leaders who were in Paris had called for Colonel Qaddafi to quit, and it may be that military intervention leads to negotiations with the opposition for the colonel and his family to leave — or, at the least, buys time for the rebels to regroup.

There are risks, though. One widely held concern is the possibility of a divided Libya with no clear authority, opening the door for Islamic extremists to begin operating in a country that had been closed to them. The assault may also present a double standard: While the West has taken punitive action against Libya, a relatively isolated Arab state, the governments in Bahrain and Yemen have faced few penalties after cracking down on their own protest movements.

The main barrage of missile strikes began around 2 p.m. Eastern time, when the United States Navy fired cruise missiles that struck Libya roughly an hour later, Vice Adm. William Gortney told reporters in Washington. He said the Pentagon had not yet assessed the damage that the missiles had caused and would not be able to do so until dawn broke in Libya.

The missile strikes were the start of what Admiral Gortney called a “multiphase operation” to create a no-fly zone that would allow coalition aircraft to fly over Libya without the risk of being shot down. He would not say whether American aircraft would be involved in enforcing the no-fly zone, but he said that no American aircraft were directly over Libya on Saturday afternoon.

Admiral Gortney cast the United States as the “leading edge” among coalition partners in the opening phase of the attack. But in keeping with Mr. Obama’s and Mrs. Clinton’s emphasis that the administration was not driving the efforts to strike Libya, the admiral and other Pentagon officials repeated that the United States would step back within days and hand over command of the coalition to one of its European allies.

The United States has at least 11 warships stationed near Tripoli, including three submarines — the Scranton, the Florida and the Providence — and the destroyers the Stout and the Barry. All five fired cruise missiles on Saturday, the Navy said. Other coalition ships in the Mediterranean included 11 from Italy and one each from Britain, Canada and France.

Earlier Saturday, Colonel Qaddafi issued letters warning Mr. Obama and other leaders not to use military force against him.

The tone of the letters — one addressed to Mr. Obama and a second to Mr. Sarkozy, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations — suggested that Colonel Qaddafi was leaving himself little room to back down.

“Libya is not yours. Libya is for all Libyans,” he wrote in a letter that was read to the news media by a spokesman. “This is injustice, it is clear aggression, and it is uncalculated risk for its consequences on the Mediterranean and Europe.

“You will regret it if you take a step toward intervening in our internal affairs.”

Colonel Qaddafi addressed Mr. Obama as “my son” in a letter that was jarring for its familiarity. “I have said to you before that even if Libya and the United States enter into war, God forbid, you will always remain my son, and I have all the love for you as a son, and I do not want your image to change with me,” he wrote. “We are confronting Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, nothing more. What would you do if you found them controlling American cities with the power of weapons? Tell me how would you behave, so that I could follow your example?”

In Paris, the emergency meeting included the prime ministers or foreign ministers from Britain, Canada, Germany, Norway, Italy, Qatar, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Poland and Mrs. Clinton for the United States.

Amr Moussa, who recently resigned as secretary general of the Arab League to run for president of Egypt, was also there, along with the league’s incoming leader, Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister of Iraq. Also attending were the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Mr. Ban of the United Nations.

But there were no African leaders there. The African Union chief, Jean Ping, instead traveled to Mauritania for a meeting with the continent’s leaders who sought to mediate a peaceful end to the Libyan crisis.

The United States, France and Britain had insisted that at least some Arab governments be involved in the Libyan operation, at least symbolically, to remove the chance that Colonel Qaddafi would portray the military action as another Western colonial intervention in pursuit of oil. But there was no sign that any Arab military would explicitly take part.

The initial French air sorties, which were not coordinated with other countries, angered some of the leaders in Paris, according to a senior diplomat from a NATO country. Information about the movement of Colonel Qaddafi’s troops toward Benghazi had been clear on Friday, but France blocked any NATO agreement on airstrikes until the Paris meeting, the diplomat said, suggesting that the flights could have begun before government forces reached the city.

But Bernard Valero, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said that there had been no delay because of the Paris meeting and no political decision to make the no-fly zone a NATO operation, which Paris has opposed from the start.

Perhaps in an effort to provide political cover before the allied strikes began, the Libyan government spokesman in Tripoli, Moussa Ibrahim, denied that pro-Qaddafi troops were attacking Benghazi, and he said that only the rebels had an incentive to break the cease-fire.

But in Benghazi, residents said the fighting was heavy as soldiers reached the city center along the main road, which is named for the anticolonial Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser. And a Soviet-era MIG-23 fighter jet that rebels said they had captured in the early days of the uprising and that they had sent on a mission against government forces went down in flames in the city. The pilot ejected, but was reported to have died from his injuries.

“We didn’t know which side the shooting was coming from,” said Umm Muftah, who escaped from Benghazi with her family about 2 p.m. A neighbor told her the balconies had been blown off her building. “We saw black smoke,” Ms. Muftah said. “They said a plane crashed down in one of the streets.”

Nearby, in the rebel-held city of Bayda, crowds cheered the news that French planes were attacking pro-Qaddafi forces in the east while allied missiles were falling in the west.

“Sarkozy is bombing them!” one rebel fighter told drivers passing his checkpoint on the way to Bayda. “They’re bombing Bab al-Aziziyah!” other fighters yelled, referring to Colonel Qaddafi’s fortified compound in Tripoli.

Refugees fleeing the fighting in Benghazi were greeted by young men holding house keys, offering empty homes for shelter.

Abdul Qadi al-Faydi drove his family and two others in a Mitsubishi truck that was packed with what seemed like everything the families owned, including a refrigerator and a washing machine.

“My entire street was destroyed,” he said. Ahead of them, young men huddled in the back of a delivery truck, under floral blankets. A minivan shuttled a group of traumatized neighbors toward the Egyptian border. As they entered Bayda, they were met by young men cheering and chanting, as if victory were at hand.

“One, two, three,” a group chanted in English. “Thanks, Sarkozy!”

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, Libya; Steven Erlanger from Paris; and Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington. Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from eastern Libya, Steven Lee Myers from Paris and Jackie Calmes from Brasília.

U.S., Britain launch first missiles against Gadhafi forces - CNN.com

Location of Benghazi within Libya.Image via WikipediaU.S., Britain launch first missiles against Gadhafi forces - CNN.com

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- French, British and American military forces made good Saturday on international warnings to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, using fighter jets and cruise missiles to hammer military positions in the first phase of an operation that will include enforcement of a no-fly zone.
More than 110 Tomahawk missiles fired from American and British ships and submarines hit about 20 Libyan air and missile defense targets, U.S. Vice Adm. William Gortney said at a Pentagon briefing.
The U.S. will conduct a damage assessment of the sites, which include SA-5 missiles and communications facilities.
The salvo, in an operation dubbed "Odyssey Dawn," was meant "to deny the Libyan regime from using force against its own people," said Gortney, who declined to detail future operations.

France convenes summit on Libya crisis Libya cease-fire ignored Libya forces advance on main rebel base Warplane falls from sky

Prime Minister David Cameron said late Saturday that British forces also are in action over Libya. "What we are doing is necessary, it is legal and it is right," he said. "I believe we should not stand aside while this dictator murders his own people."
While there were no U.S. warplanes flying over Libya late Saturday, the allies were preparing for enforcement of a no-fly zone, Gortney said.
A Libyan government spokesman said Saturday that instead of sending international observers to witness a cease-fire, the coalition of international allies chose military aggression.

Air attacks on several locations in Tripoli and Misrata have caused "real harm" to civilians, the spokesman said.
"I am very sorry and saddened that my country is facing a barbaric and armed attack," he said, adding that "this aggression will not weaken our spirits."
Shortly after the first missile attacks, U.S. President Barack Obama informed the American people of the efforts by a "broad coalition."
"The use of force is not our first choice," the president said from Brasilia, Brazil. "It is not a choice I make lightly. But we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his own people that there will be no mercy."

Obama reiterated that the Pentagon has no plans to deploy ground forces in Libya.
Obama is planning for the U.S. portion of the military action in Libya to only last for a few days, according to a senior administration official.
"In terms of the heavy kinetic portion of this military action, the president envisions it as lasting days, not weeks," the senior official said. "After that we'll take more of a supporting role."
Coalition partners say Gadhafi has failed to adhere to a United Nations resolution that imposed the no-fly zone and ordered him to stop attacks on civilians.
"He's clearly been on the offensive," a senior U.S. military official said of Gadhafi. "He said that he was going to do a cease-fire and he continued to move his forces into Benghazi."

A Libyan army spokesman said on state TV that "the crusader army has bombed fuel tanks."
The international show of force is much welcomed by besieged rebel forces who have called for backup to help them stave off a government offensive against their positions in Benghazi and other rebel-held enclaves.
An opposition spokesman in Benghazi said Gadhafi forces that assaulted the city earlier Saturday are now positioned outside the town. However, the forces are preparing for more attacks.

Earlier Saturday, Gadhafi issued defiant messages to international powers.

"I have all the Libyan people with me and I'm prepared to die. And they are prepared to die for me. Men, women and even children," Gadhafi said in a letter addressed to Obama and read to reporters by a government spokesman in Tripoli.

Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gortney used the term "unique capabilities" to describe the U.S. part of the coalition effort. Officials have said American military forces are meant to augment Arab, European and other Western troops -- but not take a lead role.
The French Defense Ministry said its attack aircraft being used to take out tanks and artillery have deemed Benghazi and the surrounding area an "exclusion zone."
The French are using surveillance aircraft and two frigates in the operation to protect civilians. The aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle will soon depart Toulon, France.
"Our air force will oppose any aggression by Colonel Gadhafi against the population of Benghazi," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking after an international, top-level meeting in Paris over the Libyan crisis.

"As of now, our aircraft are preventing planes from attacking the town," he said, calling the intervention a "grave decision."
Canada will be one of four principal partners helping to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. Six Canadian CF-18 fighter jets are en route to an Italian base in Sicily and the HMCS Charlottetown will be in position to help with the naval blockade against Libya.
"America has unique capabilities, and we will bring them to bear to help our European and Canadian allies and Arab partners to stop further violence against civilians including through the effective implementation of a no-fly zone," Clinton said.
Sarkozy said Gadhafi still has time to stop its activities. As of Friday, France, Britain, the United States and Arab League nations passed along a warning for Gadhafi to stop his operations immediately.

But "Gadhafi has totally ignored the warning" and "in the last few hours his forces have stepped up their deadly offenses," Sarkozy said.
The international coalition meeting in Paris -- which included Western and Arab partners -- focused on how to take on a Libyan government bent on destroying the fledgling opposition movement under the U.N. resolution authorizing force to protect civilians against the Gadhafi government.
Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, said the European Union is ready to give a "new Libya" economic help and aid in building new institutions.
In Rome, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's office confirmed to CNN that Berlusconi has proposed the use of the NATO base in southern Italy as a command center for allied action in Libya.

After Gadhafi forces earlier Saturday assaulted Benghazi, the opposition said the military repositioned itself far outside the city.
Earlier Saturday, incoming artillery rounds landed inside the city, and pro-Gadhafi tanks rolled into the town firing rounds, witnesses said. Plumes of smoke rose in Benghazi as civilians said buildings came under small arms fire. Many fled their homes in fear of a full-blown assault there.
A flaming fighter jet plummeted from the sky, nose-diving to the ground. Khaled el-Sayeh, the opposition military spokesman, said the plane was an old MiG-23 that belonged to the rebels.

As night fell over Benghazi on Saturday, the city became quiet and calm. While plumes of smoke could be spotted, the pro-Gadhafi tanks seen earlier were not in sight. El-Sayeh told CNN that "tens" have been killed in Benghazi on Saturday and opposition forces found 13 men clad in Libyan military uniforms bound and executed in a building that had been used by pro-Gadhafi forces to launch artillery assaults.
He said Gadhafi forces have withdrawn from the city and that they are now positioned 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside Benghazi on the road east to Ajdabiya. CNN could not independently verify those details.

In western Libya, pro-Gadhafi forces subjected the city of Misrata to heavy shelling, an opposition member said.
In Tripoli, Gadhafi's supporters took to the streets.

Libyan state TV now showed images of pro-Gadhafi demonstrations, and broadcast pictures of fireworks by pro-Gadhafi demonstrators over the Libyan leader's military compound in Tripoli. On the streets in Tripoli, people were waving green Libyan flags and singing pro-Gadhafi songs.
Fighting has raged in Libya over the last day despite the government's announcement of an "immediate" cease-fire on Friday.
The declaration -- which came hours after the U.N. Security Council resolution authorized the use of force, including the no-fly zone -- was seen by rebels as simply a move to buy itself time.

Gadhafi -- in a separate letter addressed to Sarkozy, Cameron and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon -- called the U.N. moves "invalid" because the resolution does not permit intervention in the internal affairs of other countries.

"Libya is not yours. Libya is for all Libyans," said the letter, also read by the spokesman. "You will regret it if you take a step toward intervening in our internal affairs.
"It is not your country. We could never and would never fire one bullet against our people," the letter said.
Violence has raged in Libya following protests calling for democracy and freedom and demanding an end to Gadhafi's almost 42-year-long rule. It's a conflict spurred by anti-government protest and resulting regime violence against civilians -- which the U.N. resolution cites as "outrageous" and Sarkozy calls "murderous madness."
But Gadhafi defended his actions in his note to Obama. He said his opponents are from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group's North African wing, and asked Obama what he would do if such an armed movement controlled American cities.
"Tell me, how would you behave so I could follow your example?"

Friday, March 18, 2011

U.N. Nuclear Chief: Japan 'Racing Against The Clock' : NPR

The Fukushima 1 NPPImage via WikipediaU.N. Nuclear Chief: Japan 'Racing Against The Clock' : NPR

The head of the U.N.'s nuclear energy agency called the effort to cool overheating reactors at Japan's crippled power plant a race against the clock that demands global cooperation Friday, and Japan reached out to the U.S. for help in reining in the crisis.

Japan's nuclear safety agency raised the severity rating of the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant from Level 4 to Level 5 on the seven-level International Nuclear Event Scale, putting it on par with the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, said agency spokesman Ryohei Shiomi.


EnlargeJiji Press/AFP/Getty Images
Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, arrives at Narita airport near Tokyo on Friday. He is visiting to assess the extent of the devastation and how best the agency can help.
The scale defines a Level 4 incident as having local consequences and a Level 5 incident as having wider consequences. A partial meltdown at Three Mile Island also was ranked a Level 5. The Chernobyl accident of 1986, which killed at least 31 people with radiation sickness, raised long-term cancer rates, and spewed radiation for hundreds of miles, was ranked a Level 7. France's Nuclear Safety Authority has been saying since Tuesday that the crisis in northeastern Japan should be ranked Level 6 on the scale.

At the stricken complex, military fire trucks sprayed the troubled reactor units for a second day Friday, with tons of water arcing over the facility in desperate attempts to douse the units and prevent meltdowns that could spew dangerous levels of radiation.

"The whole world, not just Japan, is depending on them," Tokyo office worker Norie Igarashi, 44, said of the emergency teams at the plants.

Last week's magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami in Japan's northeast set off the nuclear problems by knocking out power to cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant on the northeast coast. Since then, four of the troubled plant's six reactor units have had fires, explosions or partial meltdowns.

The unfolding crises have led to power shortages in Japan, forced factories to close, sent shockwaves through global manufacturing and triggered a plunge in Japanese stock prices.

"We see it as an extremely serious accident," Yukiya Amano, the head of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters Friday just after arriving in Tokyo. "This is not something that just Japan should deal with, and people of the entire world should cooperate with Japan and the people in the disaster areas."


EnlargeAP
In this photo taken Wednesday and released Friday by Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Kyodo News, smoke billows from Unit 3 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Emergency crews worked to reconnect electricity to cooling systems and spray more water on overheating nuclear fuel Friday.
"I think they are racing against the clock," he said of the efforts to cool the complex.

One week after the quake and tsunami — which left more than 6,500 dead and over 10,300 missing — emergency crews are facing two challenges in the nuclear crisis: cooling the reactors where energy is generated, and cooling the adjacent spent fuel pools where used nuclear fuel rods are stored in water.

Both need water to keep their uranium cool and stop them from emitting radiation, but with radiation levels inside the complex already limiting where workers can go and how long they can remain, it's been difficult to get enough water inside.

Water in at least one fuel pool — in the complex's Unit 3 — is believed to be dangerously low, exposing the stored fuel rods. Without enough water, the rods may heat further and spew out radiation.

"Dealing with Unit 3 is our utmost priority," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters.

Officials also reported that temperature levels in pools at Units 5 and 6 have gone up but not enough to cause immediate concern.

Edano said Friday that Tokyo is asking the U.S. government for help and that the two are discussing the specifics.

"We are coordinating with the U.S. government as to what the U.S. can provide and what people really need," Edano said.

A U.S. military fire truck was used to help spray water into the crippled Unit 3, according to Air Force Chief of Staff Shigeru Iwasaki, though the vehicle was apparently driven by Japanese workers.


The U.S. vehicle was used alongside six Japanese military fire trucks normally used to extinguish fires at plane crashes.

The fire trucks allowed emergency workers to stay a relatively safe distance from the radiation, firing the water with high-pressure cannons. The firefighters also are able to direct the cannons from inside the vehicle.

Officials shared few details about the Friday operation, which lasted nearly 40 minutes, though Iwasaki said he believed some water had reached its target.

The U.S. also is sending specialized aircraft to help determine the scope of the nuclear contamination. The converted Boeing C-135 plane, called Constant Phoenix or "the Sniffer," will fly over Japan's nuclear plants and take samples from the atmosphere. Another Air Force plane, a drone called Global Hawk, is already circling above the plants. Its infrared sensors can detect heat and help determine the effectiveness of attempts to cool the reactors.

Low levels of radiation have been detected well beyond Tokyo, which is 140 miles south of the plant, but hazardous levels have been limited to the plant itself. Still, the crisis has forced thousands to evacuate and drained Tokyo's normally vibrant streets of life, its residents either leaving town or holing up in their homes.

What Went Wrong With Japan's Nuclear Reactors
Officials are scrambling to get water into the Japanese reactors to cool the nuclear cores.

At times, Japan and the U.S. — two very close allies — have offered starkly differing assessments over the dangers at Fukushima. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jazcko said Thursday that it could take days and "possibly weeks" to get the complex under control. He defended the U.S. decision to recommend a 50-mile evacuation zone for its citizens, wider than the 30-mile band Japan has ordered.

Crucial to the effort to regain control over the Fukushima plant is laying a new power line to the plant, allowing operators to restore cooling systems. The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., missed a deadline late Thursday but said Friday that workers hoped to complete the effort in 10 to 15 hours, said nuclear safety agency spokesman Minoru Ohgoda.

But the utility is not sure the cooling systems will still function. If they don't, electricity won't help.

President Obama appeared on television to assure Americans that officials do not expect harmful amounts of radiation to reach the U.S. or its territories.

"When we see a crisis like the one in Japan, we have a responsibility to learn from this event and to draw from those lessons to ensure the safety and security of our people," Obama said Thursday. He also said the U.S. is offering Japan any help it could provide.

On Friday, Obama called on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a "comprehensive review" of the safety of all U.S. nuclear plants.

At the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, a core team of 180 emergency workers has been rotating out of the complex to minimize radiation exposure.

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.

NPR's Tom Bowman in Washington, D.C., and Christopher Joyce in Tokyo contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

U.N. Approves Airstrikes Against Libya - NYTimes.com


By DAN BILEFSKY and KAREEM FAHIM
UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations Security Council approved a measure on Thursday authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from harm at the hands of forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The measure allows not only a no-fly zone but effectively any measures short of a ground invasion to halt attacks that might result in civilian fatalities. It comes as Colonel Qaddafi warned residents of Benghazi, Libya, the rebel capital, that an attack was imminent and promised lenient treatment for those who offered no resistance.

“We are coming tonight,” Colonel Qaddafi said. “You will come out from inside. Prepare yourselves from tonight. We will find you in your closets.”

Speaking on a call-in radio show, he promised amnesty for those “who throw their weapons away” but “no mercy or compassion” for those who fight. Explosions were heard in Benghazi early on Friday, unnerving residents there, Agence-France Presse reported.

The United States, originally leery of any military involvement in Libya, became a strong proponent of the resolution, particularly after the Arab League approved a no-fly zone, something that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called a “game changer”

With the recent advances made by pro-Qaddafi forces in the east, there was a growing consensus in the Obama administration that imposing a no-fly zone by itself would no longer make much of a difference and that there was a need for more aggressive airstrikes that would make targets of Colonel Qaddafi’s tanks and heavy artillery — an option sometimes referred to as a no-drive zone. The United States or its allies might also send military personnel to advise and train the rebels, an official said.

In the most strident verbal attack on Colonel Qaddafi to date by an American official, Mrs. Clinton said Thursday that the Western powers had little choice but to provide critical military backing for the rebels. “We want to support the opposition who are standing against the dictator,” she told an applauding audience in Tunisia on Thursday. “This is a man who has no conscience and will threaten anyone in his way.”

She added that Colonel Qaddafi would do “terrible things” to Libya and its neighbors. “It’s just in his nature. There are some creatures that are like that.”

The Qaddafi government responded to the potential United Nations action with threats.

“Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger and civilian and military facilities will become targets of Libya’s counterattack,” it said in a statement carried on Libyan television and the official news agency, JANA, Reuters reported. “The Mediterranean basin will face danger not just in the short term, but also in the long term.”

There were reports on Thursday that warplanes were already bombarding the outskirts of Benghazi for a second day, opening shots, perhaps, in the battle. And after days of batterings at the hands of Qaddafi loyalists, the opposition forces welcomed the promise of Western assistance.

Rebel leaders doubted that the loyalist forces could mount an assault on Benghazi tonight, in that they were still contesting Ajdabiya, 100 miles to the south, on Thursday morning. But witnesses said there were skirmishes on the road to Benghazi in the afternoon, about 30 miles from Ajdabiya.

Mohamed, a rebel spokesman in the embattled, rebel-held city of Misurata — the last major rebel foothold in the west — welcomed the new American tone. “We are very heartened yesterday by the moves in the United Nations Security Council and the urgency of the American stand,” he said, speaking over a satellite phone.

Forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi massed outside Misurata on Thursday, apparently in preparation for an attack. Musa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Qaddafi government, confirmed that its forces were preparing to take the city in the same way they did Zawiyah, another western town that had been held by the rebels.

“It starts in the beginning by surrounding the city,” he said, “then moving slowly to avoid casualties.” Rebels in Zawiyah described heavy casualties — at least dozens — during the Qaddafi forces’ siege of that city.

“It should be finished up tomorrow if not today,” Mr. Ibrahim added.

Rebels in Misurata said that Qaddafi forces had so far appeared to hold back, though electricity, water and telecommunications remained severed a day after fighters held the town against an onslaught of tank and artillery fire.

Loyalist military units surrounded the strategically located town of Ajdabiya in the east, and were massing for a push up the road to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, 100 miles distant, rebel officials said.

On Wednesday the rebels had seemed to make some gains in Ajdabiya, the gateway to Benghazi and the Egyptian border. The Qaddafi forces, which had appeared to capture the city with ease on Tuesday afternoon, had withdrawn to the perimeter by Tuesday night, residents said, as rebel fighters patrolled the city streets and the battle flared at surrounding checkpoints.

The Qaddafi forces delivered an airstrike, followed by shelling by tanks and mortars on Wednesday, residents and rebel leaders said. Doctors said at least two people were killed Wednesday in addition to 26 deaths the day before.

By day’s end, it appeared that the rebels held control within the city, but that the loyalist forces had the city surrounded and could penetrate their opponents’ feeble defenses at will. Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, however, the explosions in Ajdabiya had given way to the sound of sporadic gunfights.

“The quiet is uncomfortable,” said Dr. Ahmed al-Jnashi, a doctor at the hospital there. “It’s abnormal. The streets are empty. People are afraid.” He said 38 people had died in two days of fighting, including two children in a car hit by a mortar round.

Dr. Jnashi said witnesses who came to the hospital on Wednesday night said government troops controlled the city’s eastern gate, on the approach to Benghazi, securing it with four tanks. “There is no media in the city,” he said. “No photographers.”

Rebel leaders boasted about their broader arsenal of weaponry — some aged warplanes and a helicopter — as well as their putative gains n Ajdabiya. But there were signs that the Qaddafi forces were simply massing for a renewed assault. The Associated Press, brought to Ajdabiya by the Qaddafi government to document its progress against the rebels, reported hundreds of pro-Qaddafi troops with tanks and artillery waiting outside Ajdabiya’s western gates. Truckloads of ammunition and equipment were reported to be arriving as well.

In Tripoli, the Qaddafi family sounded increasingly confident of victory. In an interview with a French television station, one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, told the rebels: “We don’t want to kill, we don’t want revenge. But you, traitors, mercenaries, you have committed crimes against the Libyan people: leave, go in peace to Egypt.”

He added: “Military operations are over. Within 48 hours everything will be finished. Our forces are almost in Benghazi. Whatever the decision, it will be too late.”

Colonel Qaddafi commands wide support in Tripoli, the capital and government stronghold, but perhaps not so deep. It seems divided between the manic celebration of those who shouted their allegiance and the shrugging resignation of those who admitted that they did not.

Asked how many Tripoli residents opposed Qaddafi, one shopkeeper said “100 percent.” But he was fatalistic. “Qaddafi is very strong. He killed many people. What can we do? He is the president,” even though Colonel Qaddafi holds no official title of office.

At a cafe in the neighborhood of Tajura — an anti-Qaddafi stronghold — patrons initially insisted with unmistakable sarcasm that everything in Tripoli was just fine. One man beckoned a friend to come talk to the foreign reporter, and his friend declined with a gesture signaling police handcuffs and a finger drawn across his neck.

Then, in whispers, the patrons acknowledged the protests staged there after midday prayers on recent Fridays, and said not to expect any more this week. They asked whether the West would launch airstrikes.

Despite the bluster by rebel leaders, some in the rebel strongholds were growing fatalistic about their hopes without international help. “People here are terrified,” said Ahmed al-Hasi, a former diplomat who left Benghazi on Wednesday for Bayda. “People are saying, ‘We fight until we die, or we surrender and we are humiliated and then we are killed,’ ” he said. “It will be a very, very bloody fight, and I know I will fight to the end.”

Dan Bilefsky reported from the United Nations and Kareem Fahim from Tobruk, Libya. David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Steven Lee Myers from Tunis, Tunisia.

St. Louis Beacon - Analysis: Lessons and memories from Three Mile Island

St. Louis Beacon - Analysis: Lessons and memories from Three Mile Island

By Martha Shirk, special to the Beacon
Posted 9:53 am, Tue., 3.15.11

As I’ve watched Japan’s nuclear drama unfold over the last few days, I’ve found myself thinking about the similarities with the accident 32 years ago at Three Mile Island in Central Pennsylvania.

Even though we don’t yet know the full extent of the nuclear contamination in Japan and the potential for true catastrophe, it is already clear that the situation there is far more serious than it was at Three Mile Island. The cooling systems at three separate reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station have malfunctioned, and several explosions left the fuel rods exposed. As this is written, Japanese officials are worried about the potential release of more radioactive material – and even the possibility of a full meltdown at one or more of the reactors. Eleven reactor workers have been injured, and at least 22 nearby residents have been found to have higher-than-normal levels of radiation.

What is strikingly similar between Japan today and Three Mile Island 32 years ago is the inescapable perception that the situation is out of control. As at Three Mile Island, human error is compounding mechanical malfunctions.

It’s very possible that the operator of the Fukushima plant was too complacent about the risks. We learned on Monday that these particular reactors were not built to withstand an earthquake of the magnitude of the one last week. Nor, apparently, were they built to withstand the force of a tsunami, which is shocking, since a tsunami is a predictable event on a coast, where many of the world’s nuclear plants perch.

ThreeMileIsland300pre1979CDC

Government photos

Three Mile Island before the accident - the accident would shut down the reactor at right.

Perhaps the most important lesson of Three Mile Island was that complacency about risk contributed to the problem there. TheKemeny Commission(note: Link is to a pdf) concluded in its authoritative report on what went wrong that both Metropolitan Edison, the plant’s operator, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission weren’t sufficiently on guard.

“After many years of operation of nuclear power plants, with no evidence that any member of the general public has been hurt, the belief that nuclear power plants are sufficiently safe grew into a conviction,” the commission concluded. “One must recognize this to understand why many key steps that could have prevented the accident at Three Mile Island were not taken. The Commission is convinced that this attitude must be changed to one that says nuclear power is by its very nature potentially dangerous, and, therefore, one must continually question whether the safeguards already in place are sufficient to prevent major accidents. A comprehensive system is required in which equipment and human beings are treated with equal importance.”

GOING TO HARRISBURG

I was a 27-year-old reporter in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Washington bureau when the early reports of an accident at Three Mile Island came in over the AP teletype machine on the morning of March 28, 1979. (This was the pre-internet, pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era.) A minor malfunction had occurred in the second reactor, triggering the automatic release of steam. The control room operators not only misread what was happening, but also mistakenly believed that the cooling system was continuing to work. It wasn’t, however, and to compound the problem, a backup system was inexplicably turned off, leaving the fuel rods uncovered for 2 ½ hours.

Just under three hours after the initial malfunction, high radiation levels were detected in several areas of the plant, indicating that a partial meltdown of the fuel rods had occurred. At 7 a.m., a site emergency was declared, and by 7:24 a.m., it had been expanded to a general emergency -- an "incident that has the potential for serious radiological consequences to the health and safety of the general public"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

shirk100MarthaMartha Shirk reported for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1975-96.
She is an author and journalism consultant in Palo Alto, California.

However, at 8:24 a.m., a utility official told a local radio station’s traffic reporter that there was no reason for concern. "There was a problem with a feed water pump,” he said. “The plant is shut down. We're working on it. There's no danger off-site. No danger to the general public."

At 12:45 p.m., state police closed the state road nearest the plants. At 1:50 p.m., a hydrogen explosion occurred in the reactor’s containment building. Utility officials initially believed that the noise had been caused by ventilation damper slamming and ignored it.

By this time, I was on the road to Harrisburg from Washington, D.C., in my 1973 VW bug. Nuclear power was one of my minibeats. I had spent considerable time during my four years at the paper covering the regulatory process connected to Union Electric’s construction of a nuclear plant in Callaway County (Union Electric is now Ameren Missouri).

By the next day, the situation was becoming increasingly murky as officials with the state, the utility, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission contradicted each other. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency announced regularly that the situation was improving even as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggested that it wasn’t.

To calm the public, then-Lt. Gov. William P. Scranton III toured the damaged reactor’s control room and auxiliary building, but his visit had the opposite effect, since he wore a protective suit and a respirator. And at a press conference afterwards, he contributed to the growing sense of alarm by reporting erroneously that radioactive steam had been released. That night, Walter Cronkite told the American public: “It was the first step in a nuclear nightmare; as far as we know at this hour, no worse than that. But a government official said that a breakdown in an atomic power plant in Pennsylvania today is probably the worst nuclear accident to date…”

By later that evening, the NRC learned that the damage to the core damage was much worse than expected and that there was a strong possibility that radiation had been released. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would monitor food, dairy products, and water for signs of contamination. My editors at the Post-Dispatch arranged with Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. to loan me a dosimeter to measure any radiation to which I might be exposed.

CONFUSION

By Day Three, March 30, total confusion reigned in Harrisburg. There had been radioactive iodine released, some official said; no, there hadn’t been, said another. The NRC advised Gov. Richard Thornburgh to order the evacuation of Harrisburg, and then said it wasn’t necessary. Thornburgh instead advised people within 10 miles of the plant to stay inside.

Then, two and a half hours later, Thornburgh amended his recommendation and advised pregnant women and preschool-aged children living within five miles of the plant to leave the area and everyone else to stay indoors behind closed windows. That triggered a panic.

At the time, the Post-Dispatch was an afternoon newspaper, with three editions. I needed to file a new story every few hours. In search of a pay phone, I had gone into the Pennsylvania State Capitol to file my story. As I was dictating it to Eric Zoeckler, a colleague at the Post-Dispatch, sirens went off, and people started running out of the building. Eric wrote a gripping story about being on the other end of the phone while other people’s panic engulfed me. Within hours, schools and the local universities shut down, disgorging their students to shaky parents, who loaded them into cars and headed out of town. Police were placed on alert; banks reported massive withdrawals of cash, and the local telephone system became so overloaded that calls couldn’t go through.

Meanwhile, Met Ed officials continued to minimize the situation in their comments to reporters. As the Kemeny Commission reported, “Many reporters suspected the company of providing them with erroneous information at best, or of outright lying.” After a utility official, John Herbein, told reporters on Friday that the radioactivity released earlier was only a quarter of what NRC officials had told them it actually was, the utility lost all credibility. When challenged, Herbein said, "I don't know why we need to tell you each and every thing that we do specifically.”

threemileisland300Carterleaves

President Jimmy Carter's limousine leaves Three Mile Island.

Clearly a victim himself of conflicting advice, Thornburgh asked President Jimmy Carter to designate someone who could filter all the conflicting reports and speak with authority about what was actually happening. That man was Harold Denton, whom I still remember, 32 years later, as a beacon of calm and straightforwardness. Most reporters (including myself) didn’t have the technical knowledge to cover the unfolding events with authority; Denton was the first person to brief us who talked in plain English. He arrived in Harrisburg just as rumors began being spread about the formation of a hydrogen bubble in the Unit 2 reactor. What that meant, he said, was that there was a "remote" possibility that a meltdown could occur. NRC Chairman Joseph Hendrie said that he might order an evacuation of residents within 20 miles as a precaution.

By that evening, one-quarter of the area’s nearly 1 million residents had fled. The Associated Press was reporting that the hydrogen bubble might explode within days.

On Day 4, President Carter arrived to reassure the residents who had stayed behind. But in several less-than-reassuring developments, priests granted general absolution during Sunday Mass – an act generally taken only during war or in circumstances when people can’t get to confession. Area hospitals began to discharge patients so they’d have open beds if they had to admit people suffering from radiation poisoning. Behind the scenes, we learned later from the Kemeny Commission report, NRC’s experts were in disagreement about the potential for an explosion and the need for a complete evacuation.

On Day 5, Denton announced that NRC officials believed that the hydrogen bubble had shrunk dramatically, though he didn’t say it quite so definitively in case his experts were wrong, as they had been so many times in the previous week. “We wanted to go slow on saying it was good news,” an NRC official later told the Kemeny Commission. “We wanted to say it is good news, do not panic, we think we have got it under control, things look better, but we did not want to firmly and finally conclude that there was no problem. We had to save some wiggle room in order to preserve credibility.”

But by Day 6, the potentially explosive bubble was actually gone. On Day 7, the schools outside the 5-mile radius reopened, Harrisburg’s curfew was lifted and Thornburgh announced on NBC’s Today Show that the "threat of any immediate catastrophe is over." On Day 8, pregnant woman and preschoolers were told they could safely come home.

AFTERMATH

The official toll: No one is known to be been injured by at Three Mile Island. The Kemeny Commission concluded that "there will either be no case of cancer or the number of cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them. The same conclusion applies to the other possible health effects… We conclude that the most serious health effect of the accident was severe mental stress, which was short.”

In the end, the most lasting effect of Three Mile Island was on the U.S. nuclear power industry, which went into a vegetative state for nearly three decades. It took 12 years and cost about $973 million to clean up the destroyed reactor, which has been mothballed in situ. Plans to build dozens of nuclear power plants – including a second reactor at Callaway – were canceled because of increased regulatory scrutiny and investors’ jitters.

There have been recent signs that the nuclear power industry is gaining strength as the nation looks for ways to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels. Today, there are 104 nuclear power plants operating in the United States – 32 more than when Three Mile Island began to melt down - and there have been applications for 30 new reactors filed since 2007. But the catastrophe in Japan seems likely to change all that.

If you want a good read, take a look at the Kemeny Commission’s report. And reflect on whether you’re convinced by what’s unfolding in Japan that anything has changed.

Clinton Foundation Is Moving Out of Harlem Office - NYTimes.com

Bill ClintonCover of Bill ClintonClinton Foundation Is Moving Out of Harlem Office - NYTimes.com

By MANNY FERNANDEZ
When Bill Clinton officially began his post-presidency in Harlem in 2001, he was greeted with open arms — thousands of them. At a plaza near his new office, at 55 West 125th Street, a crowd of 2,000 residents and civic leaders gathered on a hot July afternoon to celebrate the arrival of a neighbor whose presence, two blocks from the landmark Apollo Theater, seemed to put a presidential stamp of approval on the neighborhood’s revival.

In his speech there in 2001, Mr. Clinton said, “Harlem always struck me as a place that was human and alive, where there was a rhythm to life and a song in the heart, where no matter how bad it was, people held up their heads and went on, and where, when things got good, people were grateful and cared about their neighbors.”

Nearly 10 years later, Mr. Clinton is leaving Harlem. Or, at least part of him is.

The William J. Clinton Foundation is moving most of its offices from Harlem to 77 Water Street in the financial district, in Lower Manhattan. But Mr. Clinton will keep a toehold in Harlem: his office as a former president will remain on the top floor of 55 West 125th Street.

The nonprofit foundation will occupy space on the 18th floor of 77 Water Street. The move will give the foundation more space — 25,227 square feet downtown versus 18,000 square feet uptown — and will help it cut costs. The foundation’s rent will be cheaper than the $40 a square foot it pays in the Harlem building, though it is unclear what the exact new rent will be, since the deal is not yet official, said a person familiar with both office locations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the details.

The foundation did not respond to requests for comment. CB Richard Ellis, the real estate brokerage firm representing the foundation, declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for the General Services Administration, which oversees office space for former presidents, said that although the foundation was moving, the office space afforded Mr. Clinton as a former president would remain in the building in Harlem. The lease for that space — 8,715 square feet at the top of the 14-story building — was renewed in May 2010 and takes effect in August 2011, the spokeswoman, Emily Barocas, said. The 10-year lease expires in July 2021.

Ms. Barocas said the General Services Administration had no role in the foundation’s use of the Water Street space. The New York Post reported the move on Wednesday.

It remained unclear how Mr. Clinton would divide his time between the two offices. On 125th Street near his office, Harlem residents interviewed on Wednesday said Mr. Clinton had been a positive force in the neighborhood, although not a regularly visible one. Abuk Auk, 35, who works at a hair salon near 55 West 125th Street, said she saw Mr. Clinton walking into the building once years ago.

“We were so happy,” Ms. Auk said of Mr. Clinton’s arrival in Harlem in 2001. “We thought it was going to change everything for us.” She pointed across 125th Street at a row of shuttered storefronts and added: “You see those shops that are closed? It’s too bad he couldn’t do more to help small business here.”

Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright, a Democrat whose district includes the Harlem building, described Mr. Clinton as a great neighbor, adding that there were no sore feelings.

“We love him dearly,” Mr. Wright said. “The community will always love him. We would catch a glimpse of him from time to time, and that added a special flavor to the neighborhood. We wish him well.”

Harlem had not been the former president’s first choice. In February 2001, Mr. Clinton abandoned his plans to move into a skyscraper in Midtown after he was criticized for his decision to rent office space at one of Manhattan’s most lavish office towers. He had planned to rent the 56th floor of Carnegie Hall Tower for $738,700 a year, compared with the $210,000 asking rent in 2001 for the space in Harlem.

Colin Moynihan contributed reporting.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

U.S. Calls Radiation ‘Extremely High,’ Sees Japan Nuclear Crisis Worsening - NYTimes.com

The Fukushima 1 NPPImage via WikipediaU.S. Calls Radiation ‘Extremely High,’ Sees Japan Nuclear Crisis Worsening - NYTimes.com

By DAVID E. SANGER, MATTHEW L. WALD and HIROKO TABUCHI
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave a far bleaker appraisal on Wednesday of the threat posed by Japan’s nuclear crisis than the Japanese government had offered. He said American officials believed that the damage to at least one crippled reactor was much more serious than Tokyo had acknowledged, and he advised Americans to stay much farther away from the plant than the perimeter established by Japanese authorities.

The announcement opened a new and ominous chapter in the five-day-long effort by Japanese engineers to bring the six side-by-side reactors under control after their cooling systems were knocked out by an earthquake and a tsunami last Friday. It also suggested a serious split between Washington and its closest Asian ally at an especially delicate moment.

The Congressional testimony by Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the commission, was the first time the Obama administration had given its own assessment of the condition of the plant, apparently mixing information it had received from Japan with data it had collected independently.

Mr. Jaczko’s most startling assertion was that there was now little or no water in the pool storing spent nuclear fuel at the No. 4 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, leaving fuel rods stored there exposed and bleeding radiation into the atmosphere.

As a result, he said, “We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.”

His statement was quickly but not definitively rebutted by officials of Tokyo Electric Power, the Daiichi’s plant’s operator, and Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency.

“We can’t get inside to check, but we’ve been carefully watching the building’s environs, and there has not been any particular problem,” said Hajime Motojuku, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric. Speaking on Thursday morning in Japan, Takumi Koyamada, a spokesman for the regulatory agency, said that when it was checked 12 hours earlier, water remained in the spent fuel pool at reactor No. 4.

“We cannot confirm that there has been a loss in water,” he said.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Jaczko reiterated his earlier statement and added that commission representatives in Tokyo had confirmed that the pool was empty. He said Tokyo Electric and other officials in Japan had confirmed that, and also stressed that high radiation fields were going to make it very difficult to continue having people work at the plant.

If the American analysis is accurate and emergency crews at the plant have been unable to keep the spent fuel at that inoperative reactor properly cooled — it needs to remain covered with water at all times — radiation levels could make it difficult not only to fix the problem at reactor No. 4, but to keep servicing any of the other problem reactors at the plant. In the worst case, experts say, workers could be forced to vacate the plant altogether, and the fuel rods in reactors and spent fuel pools would be left to meltdown, leading to much larger releases of radioactive materials.

While radiation levels at the plant have varied tremendously, Mr. Jaczko said that the peak levels reported there “would be lethal within a fairly short period of time.” He added that another spent fuel pool, at Reactor No. 3, might also be losing water and could soon be in the same condition.

On Thursday morning, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces started dumping water from a helicopter on reactor No. 3. The helicopter made at least several passes, according to images shown on NHK, the public broadcaster.

On Wednesday, the American Embassy in Tokyo, on advice from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Americans to evacuate a radius of “approximately 50 miles” from the Fukushima plant.

The advice to Americans in Japan represents a graver assessment of the risk in the immediate vicinity of Daiichi than the warnings made by the Japanese themselves, who have told everyone within 20 kilometers, about 12 miles, to evacuate, and those 20 to 30 kilometers to take shelter. While maps of the plume of radiation being given off by the plant show that an elongated cloud will stretch across the Pacific, American officials said it would be so dissipated by the time it reached the West Coast of the United States that it would not pose a health threat.

“We would recommend an evacuation to a much larger radius than has currently been provided by Japan,” Mr. Jaczko said. That assessment seems bound to embarrass, if not anger, Japanese officials, suggesting they have miscalculated the danger or deliberately played down the risks.

It was not immediately clear how many people live within the zone around the plant that American officials believed should be evacuated. But the zone gets far closer to the city of Sendai, with its population of one million, which took the brunt of the earthquake last week.

At a hearing on Wednesday, Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, pointed out that 50 miles could take in a huge number of people; San Onofre, in her home state, California, has seven million people living within that radius, she said.

American officials who have been dealing with their Japanese counterparts report that the country’s political and bureaucratic leadership has appeared frozen in place, unwilling to communicate clearly about the scope of the problem and, in some cases, unwilling to accept outside assistance. Two American officials said they believed that the Japanese government itself was not getting a clear picture from the Tokyo Electric Power Company.

“Everything in their system is built to build consensus slowly,” said one American official who would not be quoted by name because of the delicacy of discussions with Japan. “And everything in this crisis is about moving quickly. It’s not working.”

United States Air Force officials announced Wednesday that a Global Hawk remotely piloted surveillance plane would be sent on missions over Japan to help the government assess damage from the earthquake and the tsunami. A Pentagon official said the drone was expected to fly over the stricken nuclear plant.

American officials were careful to offer no public comparisons to past nuclear accidents when discussing the Fukushima disaster. But clearly the crisis in Japan already far outstrips what happened at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, where very little radiation escaped a crippled reactor. The effort now is to keep the Japanese crisis, involving at least three reactors that had been in active use before the quake, and three others that were inactive but had storage pools for spent fuel, from escalating to the levels of the worst nuclear disaster in history: Chernobyl.

Though the plant’s reactors shut down automatically when the quake struck on Friday, the subsequent tsunami wiped out the backup electronic pumping and cooling system necessary to keep the fuel rods in the reactors and the storage pools for spent nuclear fuel covered with cool water.

The spent fuel pools can be even more dangerous than the active fuel rods, as they are not contained in thick steel containers like the reactor core. As they are exposed to air, the zirconium metal cladding on the rods can catch fire, and a deadly mix of radioactive elements can spew into the atmosphere. The most concern surrounds Cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years and can get into food supplies or be inhaled.

Mr. Jaczko (pronounced YAZZ-koe) said radiation levels might make it impossible to continue what he called the “backup backup” cooling functions that have so far helped check the fuel melting inside the reactors. Those efforts consist of using fire hoses to dump water on overheated fuel and then letting the radioactive steam vent into the atmosphere.

Those emergency measures, carried out by a small squad of workers and firefighters, represent Japan’s central effort to forestall a full-blown fuel meltdown that would lead to much higher releases of radioactive material into the air.

Mr. Jaczko’s testimony, the most extended comments by a senior American official on Japan’s nuclear disaster, described what amounts to an agonizing choice for Japanese authorities: keep sending workers into an increasingly contaminated area in a last-ditch effort to cover nuclear fuel with water, or do more to protect the workers but risk letting the pools boil away — and thus risk a broader meltdown.

According to Tokyo Electric’s data, the spent fuel pool at the No. 4 reactor contains 548 fuel assemblies that were in use at the reactor until last November, when they were move to the storage pool on the site. That means that the fuel rods were only recently taken out of active use and that their potential to burn and release radioactivity is higher than spent fuel in storage for a longer period.

Experts say workers at the plant probably could not approach a fuel pool that was dry, because radiation levels would be too high. In a normally operating pool, the water not only provides cooling but also shields workers from gamma radiation.

Earlier in the day, Japanese authorities announced a different escalation of the crisis at Daiichi when they said that a second reactor unit at the plant might have suffered damage to its primary containment structure and appeared to be releasing radioactive steam.

The break, at the No. 3 reactor unit, worsened the already perilous conditions at the plant, a day after officials said the containment vessel in the No. 2 reactor had also cracked.

David E. Sanger and Matthew L. Wald reported from Washington, and Hiroko Tabuchi from Tokyo. Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Hong Kong.