Monday, March 28, 2011

Radiation fears mount again in Japan after plant workers injured

TOKYO (Reuters) - Radiation fears escalated in Japan on Friday after
workers suffered burns as they tried to cool an earthquake-crippled
nuclear plant, while the government sowed confusion over whether it
was widening an evacuation zone

around the facility.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, making his first public statement on the
crisis in a week, said the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power
complex north of Tokyo was not getting worse but described it as
"nowhere near the point" of being resolved.

"We are making efforts to prevent it from getting worse, but I feel we
cannot become complacent," he told reporters. "We must continue to be
on our guard."

The comments reflected a spike of unease in Japan after several days
of slow but steady progress in containing the nuclear crisis, which
was triggered by a devastating earthquake and tsunami two weeks ago.

Over 10,000 people were killed and 17,500 are still missing in the
disaster. But even those numbers have been eclipsed by the possibility
of a catastrophic meltdown at Fukushima, just 250 km (150 miles) north
of Tokyo.

The government prodded tens of thousands people living in a 20-30 km
(12-18 mile) zone beyond the stricken complex to leave, but insisted
it was not widening a smaller evacuation zone.

China, meanwhile, said two Japanese travellers arriving in the country
were found to have very high levels of radiation.


Three workers trying to cool one of the most critical reactors at the
plant were exposed to radiation levels 10,000 times higher than
normal, but officials were unable to say if the leak came from the
radioactive core due to a crack in the


A rupture in the reactor would mean a serious reversal following the
slow progress in containing radiation leaks.

The reactor, No. 3 of six, is the only one to use plutonium in its
fuel mix which is more toxic than the uranium used in the other

The government called for a thorough investigation into why such
elevated levels of radiation had suddenly come to light.

More than 700 engineers have been working in shifts around the clock
to stabilise the plant but they pulled back from some parts when the
workers were hurt. Two of the men suffered radiation burns after
radioactive water seeped over their boots.

"The contaminated water had 10,000 times the amount of radiation as
would be found in water circulating from a normally operating
reactor," said Japanese nuclear agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama.

"It is possible that there is damage to the reactor."

But Nishiyama later told reporters: "It could be from venting
operations and there could be some water leakage from pipes or from
valves, but there is no data suggesting a crack.

"I do not believe the container vessel or the pressure vessel have
physical damage, like cracks. We do not know clearly where the
radioactive water came from -- the reactor or the spent fuel pool."

Hideo Morimoto, director at the Agency for Natural Resources and
Energy, said the incident at the reactor was not serious.

"I feel if the pressure vessel has been seriously damaged, then far
more radiation would have leaked," he said.

U.N. nuclear watchdog IAEA said a total of 17 workers had received
elevated levels of radiation at Fukushima since the operations began,
but said the other 14 did not suffer burns.


China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and
Quarantine said two travellers who arrived in the eastern city of Wuxi
from Tokyo were found to have high levels of radiation although they
presented no risk to others.

"Tests showed that the two travellers seriously exceeded the limit,"
it said in a statement.

Until now, no one in Japan except workers at the stricken plant has
been found with seriously elevated radiation levels, and Japan's
foreign ministry noted that as of March 18 the International Civil
Aviation Association had declared that screening of airline passengers
from Japan was not necessary.

Japan's chief cabinet secretary said 130,000 people living in an outer
circle around Fukushima should consider leaving, although he insisted
it was because getting supplies to the region was difficult and it was
not an evacuation order.

"Given how prolonged the situation has become, we think it would be
desirable for people to voluntarily evacuate in order to meet their
social needs," Yukio Edano said.

Japan evacuated a 20-km (12-mile) zone around the Fukushima nuclear
plant after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Seventy thousand
people left their homes.

Edano has maintained there was no need currently to expand the
evacuation zone, but an official at the Science Ministry confirmed
that daily radiation levels in an area 30 km (18 miles) northwest of
the plant had exceeded the annual limit.


Despite the increased radiation reports, there has been some progress
in containing the crisis at Fukushima.

Two of the reactors are now regarded as safe in what is called a cold
shutdown. Four remain volatile, emitting steam and smoke periodically,
but work is advancing to restart water pumps needed to cool fuel rods
inside those reactors.

The United States has been offering aid to its ally Japan, and two of
its barges will together provide 525,000 gallons (2.0 million litres)
of water for cooling the reactors.

But heightened by widespread public ignorance of the technicalities of
radiation, alarm has spread.

Vegetable and milk shipments from the areas near the plant have been
stopped, and Tokyo's 13 million residents were told this week not to
give tap water to babies after contamination from rain put radiation
at twice the safety level.

It dropped back to safe levels the next day, and the city governor
cheerily drank water in front of cameras at a water purifying plant.

Experts say radiation leaking from the plant is still mainly below
levels of exposure from flights or medical x-rays.

Nevertheless, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, the United
States and Hong Kong are all restricting food and milk imports from
the zone. Other nations are screening Japanese food, and German
shipping lines simply avoiding the nation.

In Japan's north, more than a quarter of a million people are in
shelters. Exhausted rescuers are still sifting through the wreckage of
towns and villages, retrieving bodies and pulling out photos for the
consolation of survivors.

Amid the suffering, though, there was a sense that Japan was turning
the corner in its humanitarian crisis. Aid flowed to refugees, and
phone, electricity, postal and bank services began returning to the
north, albeit sometimes by makeshift means.

Owners of small businesses began cleaning up their premises in the
worst-hit areas.

"Everybody on this block has the firm belief that they are going to
bring this thing back again," said Maro Kariya in the town of
Kamaishi, as he cleaned the family-owned Kariya Coffee of debris.

The estimated $300 billion damage from the quake and tsunami makes
this the world's costliest natural disaster. Global financial market
jitters over Japan's crisis have calmed, though supply disruptions are
affecting the automobile and technology


Foreigner investor buying of Japanese shares actually reached a record
high in the week after the disaster, data showed, as bargain-hunters
leaped in when stocks first plunged.

(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg, Chizu Nomiyama, Sumio Ito, Mayumi
Negishi, Shinichi Saoshiro and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Yoko
Nishikawa, Jon Herskovitz and Chisa Fujioka in northeast Japan;
Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by John Chalmers)

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