Sarkozy calls for nuclear reform during Japan visit

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for new global nuclear regulations Thursday as the country came under pressure to extend its evacuation zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant due to concerns about spreading radiation.


REUTERS – French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on Thursday for the creation of new global nuclear regulations by the end of 2011 during a first visit by a foreign leader to Japan since the earthquake and tsunami that triggered its atomic disaster.


On Tuesday France confirmed it was sending nuclear experts from the French nuclear company Areva and its CEA nuclear research body to the Fukushima plant at the request of Japanese authorities.

Group of 20 chairman Sarkozy said France wanted to host a meeting of the bloc’s nuclear officials in May to fix new norms in the wake of the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

“We must address this anomaly that there are no international safety norms for nuclear matters,” he said.

The world’s worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl in 1986 is proving hard to contain and has forced an international rethink on the benefits and safety of nuclear power.

U.N. body the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sets standards and recommendations, but they are not legally binding and safety is primarily the responsibility of member states.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan backed the French proposal for a global nuclear review. “In order to avoid recurrence of such an accident, it is our duty to accurately share with the world our experience,” Kan said at a joint news conference.

The nuclear drama at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has piled on the agony for Japan after the quake and tsunami left nearly 28,000 people dead or missing and caused damage that may top $300 billion.

First data on the economic impact of the March 11 disaster showed manufacturing suffered its biggest drop on record this month as factories shut and supply chains were disrupted, especially in the car and technology sectors for which Japan is renowned.

France, the world’s most nuclear-dependent country, is taking a lead in assisting Japan.

“Dear Japanese friends, know that in this appalling catastrophe, the world is watching and admiring you,” Sarkozy said during his visit to Tokyo.

As well as his show of solidarity by his personal presence, Paris has flown in experts from state-owned nuclear reactor maker Areva .

“Consider me your employee,” Areva Chief Executive Anne Lauvergeon told Japanese officials.

The United States and Germany have weighed in too, offering robots to help repair the damaged nuclear plant.

In an alarming development in Switzerland, a parcel bomb exploded in the offices of the national nuclear lobby, injuring two female employees. It was not known who sent it.

Switzerland has frozen he approvals process for three new nuclear stations pending a safety review after Japan’s disaster.

Pressure has been growing on Japan to expand the evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant where radiation hit 4,000 times the legal limit in the sea nearby and hindered the battle to contain the crisis.

Both the U.N. nuclear watchdog and Japan’s own nuclear safety agency have advised Kan to consider widening the 20-km (12-mile) zone round the plant on the northeast Pacific coast.

High radiation was detected twice that distance away.

Government officials are pleading for Japanese, and the world, to avoid overreacting to what they say are still low-risk levels of radiation away from the plant.

Evacuation controversy

More than 70,000 people have been evacuated from the 20-km ring. Another 136,000 who live in a 10-km (6-mile) band beyond that have been encouraged to leave or to stay indoors.

The IAEA, said radiation at Iitate village, 40 km (25 miles) from the plant, exceeded a criterion for evacuation.

Consistently high levels of radiation found in the sea near the complex could mean radiation is leaking out continuously, Japan’s nuclear watchdog said. The source is still unknown, adding to the headaches for engineers on the site.

Radioactive iodine in seawater near drains running from the plant was 4,385 times more than the legal limit, the highest recorded so far during the crisis.

In a sign of the extraordinary times Japan is living, one newborn baby’s first medical appointment was not with a paediatrician but a Geiger counter.

“I am so scared about radiation,” Misato Nagashima said as she took her baby Rio, born four days after the earthquake and disaster, for a screening at a city in Fukushima prefecture.

Concern over radiation beyond Japan grew further after Singapore detected radiation nine times the limit in cabbages from Japan, while the United States reported “minuscule” levels of radiation in milk samples on its west coast.

Several countries have banned milk and produce from areas near the damaged nuclear plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo. Japan has itself stopped exports of vegetables and milk from there.

Contaminated milk was one of the biggest causes of thyroid cancer after the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl because people near the plant kept drinking milk from local cows.

Lengthy battle

Experts say the battle to control Fukushima’s six reactors could take weeks, if not months, followed by a clean-up operation that may drag on for years.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co could face compensation claims of up to 11 trillion yen ($133 billion) -- nearly four times its equity if the nuclear crisis drags on for two years, an analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch said.

Experts said the continued lack of a permanent cooling system was hindering efforts to stop fuel rods overheating.

Workers have been forced to pump in seawater to cool the rods, but this in turn creates contaminated water flows.

Radiation readings around the evacuation zone vary widely.

Daily readings published by the government show that 30 km (19 miles) northwest of the reactors levels are climbing up to 42 microsieverts per hour, about six times the cosmic radiation experienced during a Tokyo-New York flight.

Elsewhere at that distance around the reactor it is just 1.0-1.2 microsieverts per hour.

A Reuters reading in downtown Tokyo on Thursday showed a radiation level of 0.18 microsieverts per hour. This is still quite low by global standards as Japan has lower levels of natural background radiation than other places.

“All the experts agree that living in Tokyo now does not represent a health risk,” Sarkozy said during a meeting with French residents at the ambassador’s residence in the capital.

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