Japanese PM calls situation at troubled N-plant 'very grave'

The radiation leak detected yesterday at the No.3 reactor indicated possible damage to the unit's vessel, pipes or valves, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said, two weeks after the magnitude 9 quake and tsunami rocked the country's northeast leaving over 27,000 people dead or unaccounted for.

Three workers at the No.3 reactor's turbine building, who received burn injuries yesterday, were exposed to the water containing radioactive materials 10,000 times the normal level, Kyodo news agency reported, quoting authorities.

Following the incident, the nuclear agency ordered the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator the nuclear plant, to improve radiation management at the crisis-hit facility. TEPCO has already begun removing the highly radioactive water from the site.

In a televised news conference, Premier Kan warned that the situation at the nuclear plant remained "very grave and serious" and still "unpredictable".

"We are not in a position where we can be optimistic. We must treat every development with the utmost care," he said, as he expressed his apology to farmers and businessmen around the plant for the damage suffered by them.

"We're working to stop the situation from worsening. We need to continue to be extremely vigilant," he said and asked residents in the tsunami-ravaged areas to "move with full courage towards reconstruction."

He also thanked technicians at the nuclear plant, firefighters and military personnel for "risking their lives" to stabilise the crippled atomic power station.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency's spokesman, told a press conference that "there is a good chance that the reactor (No.3) has been damaged."

He, however, said later that there is no data, such as on the pressure level, to suggest a crack, Kyodo reported.

Nishiyama said that further verification is needed to find out how the radioactive water reached the underground site. Tonnes of water had been poured into the reactor and in its pool, which was substantially damaged by a hydrogen blast on March 14.

The government, which had earlier designated areas within a 20 km radius of the Fukushima plant as exclusion zone, today encouraged residents within a 30 km radius of the nuclear power station to leave voluntarily, as the release of radioactive materials is expected to continue for some time.

Though the restoration work at the troubled plant was disrupted due to the radiation exposure incident yesterday, TEPCO today prepared to inject fresh water into the No.1, No.2, No.3 and No.4 reactor cores and spent fuel pools, instead of seawater which is being currently used.

Authorities wanted to replace sea water with fresh water as crystallised salt could form a crust on the fuel rods and prevent smooth water circulation, thus diminishing the cooling effect.

Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said that US forces in Japan will offer fresh water to be sprayed at the reactor cores and the fuel pools to ensure ample water supply. TEPCO currently uses fresh water from a dam near the plant.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said that heads of affected municipalities within 20 to 30 km of the nuclear plant have been told to encourage people to voluntarily move farther away and that authorities would help them relocate.

Edano said it is "preferable" for people to leave, given the difficulties they are encountering in their daily lives.

"The distribution of goods is stalled, and it is rather difficult to maintain their daily living over a long period of time," he said.

He also said that a rigorous examination was underway to establish the cause of the high radiation leak at the Fukushima plant.

Locals staying indoors in the areas close to the plant are facing hard time sourcing a range of goods. Trucking companies are also shunning the government-designated areas apparently due to fears of radiation exposure.

Two weeks after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, around 240,000 people are still being sheltered in 1,900 evacuation centres. Damage to houses and roads is estimated between 16 trillion to 25 trillion yen.

According to the National Police Agency, more than 27,000 people are confirmed dead or remained unaccounted for -- 10,035 killed and 17,443 missing.

Miyagi police posted on their website information about more than 2,000 recovered bodies, including details of clothing and body type, in the hope of identifying them.
In view of a large number of bodies, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures are forgoing the custom of cremating them and have begun burials. In Higashimatsushima, Miyagi, nearly 100 bodies have been buried so far, Kyodo said.

While highways and ports in the disaster-hit areas have reopened, part of the bullet train service on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line is still suspended.

Survivors of the disaster also experienced continuous aftershocks, with the Japan Meteorological Agency forecasting a 20 per cent likelihood through Sunday of a quake with a magnitude of over 7.

The Japanese government said that leafy vegetables and milk produced in farms in Fukushima and three other nearby prefectures have been contaminated by radiation released from the stricken nuclear plant.

Abnormally high levels of radioactive materials were again detected in the sea near the crisis-hit nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, TEPCO said, warning that the radiation levels in seawater may keep rising.

It said radioactive iodine-131 which was 146.9 times higher than the legal concentration limit was detected yesterday in a seawater sample taken around 330 metres south of the plant, near the drain outlets of its troubled four reactors, Kyodo reported.

The search for missing people has been affected in Fukushima due to the ongoing nuclear crisis, rescue workers said.

Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa visited the northeastern Japanese prefecture to encourage the Self-Defense Force personnel battling to contain the nuclear crisis as well as those helping evacuees.

In Iwate Prefecture, construction of temporary housing started in the coastal city of Kamaishi, while the municipal governments of Ofunato and Miyako announced they would begin the construction work tomorrow, Kyodo said.

At least 8,800 units of temporary housing will be built in the prefecture.
The Tohoku Expressway, which was closed following the twin disaster, was fully reopened to ordinary traffic this morning, enabling full-fledged support for reconstruction.
Highway use was previously restricted to authorised emergency vehicles to give priority to transporting relief goods and workers.

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