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Asia-pacific

French president arrives in crisis-stricken Japan

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Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-03-31

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first world leader to arrive in post-quake Japan Thursday as the country came under pressure to extend its evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant due to concerns about spreading radiation.

REUTERS – The U.N. nuclear watchdog suggested Japan consider widening an evacuation zone around a stricken nuclear plant as French President Nicolas Sarkozy was due to arrive on Thursday, the first leader to visit since a devastating earthquake and tsunami sparked the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.

Concerns over radiation spreading beyond Japan grew again after Singapore detected radiation nine times the limit in cabbages imported from Japan while the United States reported small levels of radiation in milk samples on its west coast.
 
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said radiation measured at the village of Iitate, 40 km (25 mile) from Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, exceeded a criterion for evacuation.
 
Japan has ordered those within a 20 km radius from the plant to leave and is encouraging those living in a 20-30 km ring to do the same, and if they don't, to stay inside.
 
"We have advised (Japan) to carefully assess the situation and they have indicated that it is already under assessment," Denis Flory, a deputy director general of the IAEA, said.
 
The finding comes as Sarkozy, who chairs the G20 and G8 blocs of nations, is due to meet his Japanese counterpart, Naoto Kan, to show support for Japan's efforts to end its nuclear crisis and rebuild after the March 11 quake and tsunami.
 
France, the world's most nuclear-dependent country, has flown in experts from its state-owned nuclear reactor maker Areva, while the United States has offered robots to help repair the damaged Daiichi nuclear plants north of Tokyo.
 
Japan is also facing a humanitarian calamity triggered by the earthquake and tsunami, which left more than 27,500 people dead or missing.

Kan has been criticised by the opposition for not expanding the evacuation zone. Greenpeace this week said it had confirmed radiation levels in this village northwest of the plant high enough to evacuate, but Japan's nuclear safety agency has rebuffed the environmental group's call.

Radiation detected in US
 
A "minuscule" amount of radioactive iodine has been detected in a milk sample from the U.S. state of Washington, U.S. regulators said on Wednesday.
 
"These types of findings are to be expected in the coming days and are far below levels of public health concern, including for infants and children," the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency said in a joint statement.
 
Contaminated milk was one of the biggest causes of thyroid cancers after the nuclear accident in Chernobyl because people near the plant kept drinking milk from local cows.
The EPA said it has increased radiation monitoring in U.S. milk, rain and drinking water in response to radiation leaks at Japan's nuclear plant, which was damaged by the huge tsunami that followed the massive 9.0 quake on March 11.
Singapore has told the IAEA that some cabbages imported from Japan had radiation levels up to nine times the levels recommended for international trade.
 
Several countries have banned milk and produce from the areas near the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, due to contamination fears. Japan has itself stopped exports of vegetables and milk from near the plant, which is leaking radiation.
 
Japan has called on World Trade Organisation nations not to impose "unjustifiable" import curbs on its goods due to radiation fears.
 
While food makes up only 1 percent of Japan's exports, the tsunami-crippled nuclear plant poses a serious risk to an economy burdened with huge public debt, an ageing population and a big bill for rebuilding, possibly topping $300 billion.
 
Contaminated seawater
 
Radioactive iodine in the sea off the damaged plant has hit record levels. The state nuclear safety agency said the amounts were 3,355 times the legal limit and highly toxic plutonium has been detected in the soil at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
 
As operators struggle to regain control of the damaged reactors, three weeks after the quake and tsunami, nuclear experts said the continued lack of a permanent cooling system was hindering efforts to cool down fuel rods.
 
Workers have been forced to pump in seawater to cool the rods, but this creates contaminated seawater around the stricken plant and is making it difficult to reconnect the plant's internal cooling system which contains radiation.
 
"They need to keep cooling the fuel by introducing this water and so they are continuing to generate contaminated water and they need to deal with it," said Richard Meserve, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and current President of the Carnegie Institution.
 
"The danger of course is that there will extensively contaminate the area and make it increasingly difficult for workers to get in there," said Meserve.
 
Japan has ordered an immediate safety upgrade at its 55 nuclear power plants, its first acknowledgement that standards were inadequate.
 
A Reuters investigation showed Japan and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) repeatedly played down dangers at its nuclear plants and ignored warnings, including a 2007 tsunami study from the utility's senior safety engineer.
 
The Japanese government says nuclear power will remain an integral supplier of power. Before the disaster, Japan's nuclear reactors provided about 30 percent of the country's electric power. That had been expected to rise to 50 percent by 2030, among the highest in the world.
 
Massive nuclear clean-up
 
Hundreds of thousands of Japanese whose homes and livelihoods were wiped away by the tsunami that obliterated cities on the northeast coast are living in makeshift shelters and evacuation centres.
 
Tens of thousands of people, including farmers and their families have been evacuated from the exclusion zone around the stricken Fukushima plant, and another 130,000 who live in a 10 km (6-mile) band beyond the exclusion zone have been advised either to leave or stay indoors.
 
There is no indication how long they will be homeless.
 
TEPCO said it was inevitable it would have to scrap four of its six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Scrapping the damaged nuclear reactors may take decades , said Japan's Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency.
 
Assuming no drastic worsening of radiation leaks, there should be no long-term exclusion zone like that around Chernobyl in Ukraine, the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986, said nuclear experts.
 
Radiation levels in the area now are higher than normal and could increase risks to long-term health, but remediation methods, such as deep-ploughing the soil, removing topsoil altogether and choosing crops and ways of farming that don't pick up much radioactivity, can reduce the risk of harm.

Date created : 2011-03-31

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