Radiation fears escalate in Japan

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

Source of radiation

China, meanwhile, said two Japanese travellers who arrived 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 container.

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 reactors.

The government called for a thorough investigation into why such elevated levels of radiation suddenly came 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.

UN 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.

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