HACHINOHE, Japan | The second largest city on the devastated northeastern coast of Japan, Hachinohe, is set to become a major conduit for aid shipments to the desperate region.
While local fishermen gawk at large fishing trawlers laying like beached whales in parking lots, roads and a gutted port area, U.S. Navy divers have begun operations to locate and move sunken ships to clear a channel and open the vital port to aid deliveries.
Meanwhile, emergency crews continued attempts to pump tens of thousands of gallons of radioactive water from four stricken reactors at the Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima province. They need to remove the water before attempting to restore electricity to cooling units for the dangerously hot nuclear fuel.
Radiation at the plant has soared in recent days. The latest weekend readings showed contamination 100,000 times normal in water in one reactor and 1,850 times normal in the nearby sea.
There was another aftershock early Monday as a magnitude-6.5 quake hit off Japan's east coast and prompted a tsunami alert. However, the Japan Meteorological Agency predicted just a 11/2-foot wave would strike Miyagi province and there were no immediate indications of major damage or injuries.
The massive earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11 has left hundreds of thousands homeless. The death toll could reach as high as 18,000.
"This is going to be a primary port for aid deliveries because the roads around here are in relatively decent condition. It's really important to clear this channel and open up the harbor," master diver Jon Klukas said of Hachinohe.
Twenty-six merchant mariners and 16 Navy divers aboard a naval salvage ship from Pearl Harbor responded to a Japanese government request to clear the harbor, littered with sunken fishing trawlers, boats, cars and houses that have been impeding access to the vital port.
Divers have been spending five minutes to two hours in murky, 41 degree waters, amid snow flurries and air temperatures in the 20s and 30s, he said. Along with sonar units, divers have been finding sheds, cars, shipping containers and even 100-ton concrete blocks on the muddy bottom.
"We lift it, pump it out till it's floating, then move it somewhere else, in order to open up the channel," Mr. Klukas said.
As he spoke aboard the USNS Safeguard, crews began to lift a 50-feet-long boat blocking traffic at the head of a pier near an empty port, normally bustling with dockworkers and shipments. On Saturday, the crew helped clear a path to allow a large natural gas tanker with badly needed fuel supplies into the port Sunday morning.
Mr. Klukas said the crew has been working closely with the Japanese coast guard and the local fishermen's union to bring in aid and reopen the area to industry.
"We don't want to take away from the local salvage industry they have here," he said. "We just want to get aid in as fast as possible."
He said the Safeguard, which had been waiting at Yokosuka naval base near Tokyo, sailed "well out to sea" to avoid potential radiation from the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
"It's a very conservative perimeter. We would not put our personnel in danger," he said.
While Mr. Klukassaid divers were not in danger of nuclear contamination because the current is moving from north to south, many local fishermen say they are afraid to go out and catch fish that might have traces of radioactive elements such as iodine or cesium.
"The nuclear power plant is messing up everything for us," said Hidehito Nakamura, checking on his small fishing craft in the port area.
"They say the contamination is only near the plant. But we are worried about the winds and the currents."
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