America's top nuclear official told Congress today that the pool cooling spent fuel rods at the crippled Japanese nuclear complex had lost most of its water or all of its water, a potentially catastrophic situation.
The Japanese quickly challenged that statement, but gave few details saying only that the situation at the holding pool was "stable."
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said that the fuel pool at unit 4 at the the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had lost massive amounts of water.
"We believe at this point that unit 4 may have lost a significant inventory, if not lost all of its water," Jaczko told a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "What we know at unit three, and again our information is limited, what we believe is that there is a crack in the spent fuel pool for unit three as well, which could lead to a loss of water in that pool."
The spent fuel rods are kept in pools of water to prevent them from overheating and ultimately melting down. The outer shell of the rods could also ignite with enough force to propel the radioactive fuel inside over a wide area.
Japan's nuclear safety agency and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the complex, deny water is gone from the pool. Utility spokesman Hajime Motojuku told the Associated Press the "condition is stable" at unit 4.
Radiation levels have risen rapidly at the plant and there is a fear that the situation is heading for the worst. If levels continue to rise the doses emergency workers experience near the reactors could be lethal. One U.S. Official told ABC News that "it would be hard to describe how alarming this is right now" and that a suicide mission might not even be enough to avert disaster.
Jaczko recommends that American citizens living within 50 miles of the Fukushima nuclear power plant evacuate the area.
"For a comparable situation in the United States we would recommend an evacuation to a much larger radius than has been provided in Japan," he said. "As a result of this recommendation, the Ambassador in Japan has issued a statement to American citizens that we believe it is appropriate to evacuate to a larger distance, up to approximately 50 miles."
Japan's current evacuation zone is 12 to 19 miles.
The recommendation comes as the Tokyo Electric Power Co. announced that the power line to the plant is almost complete and that the company plans to try it "as soon as possible." The line would revive electric-powered pumps, enabling a steady water supply to be maintained at the troubled reactors and spent fuel storage ponds, keeping them cool.
Surging radiation levels temporarily halted work to cool the troubled reactors at the plant earlier today, raising worries that officials are running out of options to stabilize the escalating catastrophe.
"We're very close now to the point of no return," Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, said. "It's gotten worse. We're talking about workers coming into the reactor perhaps as a suicide mission and we may have to abandon ship."
A group of 180 workers rotate shifts working at the plant in teams of 50 men. The men have been nicknamed the "Fukushima Fifty."