Japan under pressure to widen nuclear evacuation zone
• High levels of radiation detected outside current 20km zone
• Prime minister plans to review nuclear energy policy
• Concerns over water contaminated by reactor cooling operation
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 31 March 2011 09.16 BST
Pressure is mounting on Japan to expand the evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, as the prime minister says he plans to review the country’s nuclear energy policy.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Japanese authorities should consider expanding the zone beyond its current 20km (12-mile) radius after high levels of radiation were detected at a village about twice that distance from the plant.
The government has so far resisted calls to evacuate more people from the area, but said its policy was under constant review, and that monitoring of radiation levels was being increased.
More than 70,000 people living inside the 20km zone have been evacuated, but another 136,000 living between 20-30km away have been told to stay in their homes. The US has recommended that its citizens stay at least 80km away.
Some have taken government advice to leave voluntarily, but many others have spent almost three weeks living in an area with few supplies and services, their plight compounded by rising radiation levels and speculation that stabilising Fukushima Daiichi could take months.
Radiation fears have prevented authorities from collecting the bodies of as many as 1,000 people living in the evacuation zone who died in the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.
Kyodo news agency cited police sources as saying the corpses had been exposed to high radiation levels and would probably have to be decontaminated before they could be collected and examined by doctors.
Left as they were, the bodies could pose a health threat to relatives identifying them at morgues, the agency said. Cremating them could create radioactive smoke, while burying them could contaminate soil.
The IAEA said measurements taken at Iitate, 40km from the plant, were above the level at which the United Nations body normally orders evacuations. Earlier this week, Greenpeace issued a similar warning after recording high levels of radiation in the village.
“We have advised [Japanese officials] to carefully assess the situation, and they have indicated that it is already under assessment,” Denis Flory, a senior IAEA official, said in Vienna.
“The highest values were found in a relatively small area in the north-west from the Fukushima power plant and the first assessment indicates that one of the IAEA operational criteria for evacuation is exceeded in Iitate village.”
The agency said its latest readings were conducted over a wide area from 18-26 March, and that the samples contained radioactive iodine-131 and caesium-137.
But the chief government spokesman, Yukio Edano, said the evacuation zone would stay unchanged for the time being. “At the moment, we have no reason to believe that the radiation will have an effect on people’s health,” he said. “We need to step up our monitoring, and if necessary take steps to deal with it.”
Media reported that 140 members of a US military team specialising in radiation control would arrive soon to help deal with the crisis.
Nuclear safety officials said rising contamination in the sea near the plant pointed to a constant leak of radiation. On Thursday, Japan’s nuclear and industrial safety agency said radioactive iodine near drains running from the plant was 4,385 times higher than the legal limit.
Experts said workers at the plant, 240km north of Tokyo, faced the problematic task of cooling overheating reactors with seawater while ensuring that contaminated runoff does not end up in the surrounding sea and soil.
“There’s definitely a conflict now between trying to keep the reactors cool and managing the contaminated waste water being generated by the operation,” said Ed Lyman, of the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists.
The deepening of the crisis exposed a dispute between the government and the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power company about the plant’s future. The firm has said four of the six reactors are beyond repair, but that two could function again. The prime minister, Nato Kan, however, said the entire plant should be decommissioned.
Kyodo reported that Kan is to order a review of plans to increase Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy from 30% to 50% by 2030. With public confidence in the industry severely dented by the Fukushima emergency, few communities are expected to grant approval for the construction of 14 atomic power plants over the next 20 years.
Japan fears radioactive contamination of marine life
Fukushima coastal waters see high levels of radioactive iodine, which could build up in seaweed commonly eaten in Japan
Ian Sample , science correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 30 March 2011 18.57 BST
A boy carries a fish at Ohara port, Japan Radioactivity fears deliver a double whammy to Japanese fisheries which have already been badly hit by the tsunami. Photograph: Everett Kennedy Brown/EPA
High levels of radiation in the sea off the coast of Fukushima have raised concerns over harm to local marine life and the risk of contaminated fish, shellfish and seaweed entering the food chain.
Tests on seawater near the nuclear power plant showed that levels of radioactive iodine reached 3,355 times the legal limit on Monday, one of several peaks in recent days that have fallen rapidly as radioactive substances decayed and were steadily diluted and dispersed by ocean currents.
Officials are watching levels of iodine-131 in seawater because although it has a half-life of eight days, meaning it is half as radioactive after that time, the substance builds up in seaweed, a common food in the Japanese diet. If consumed, radioactive iodine collects in the thyroid and can cause cancer.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said iodine-131 in seawater would “soon be of no concern” presuming there are no further discharges of contaminated water from the power station into the sea.
The IAEA added that Japanese authorities have released the first analyses of fish, caught at the port of Choshi, in Chiba prefecture south of Fukushima, which found one of five to be contaminated with a detectable level of caesium-137, a far more persistent radioactive substance, though at a concentration that was far below safety limits for consumption.
Many countries, including Britain, have begun radiation testing of fish, shellfish and other fresh produce from Japan or have imposed wider bans on imports from the region. Fisheries are not entering waters within the 20km (12-mile) exclusion zone around Fukushima, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
The fate of many local seafood and shellfish farms, including scallops, oysters, sea urchins and sea snails, was sealed more than two weeks ago when the tsunami wiped out beds and destroyed fishing vessels and ports around Fukushima. In Iwate prefecture, authorities say the disaster may have wiped out businesses that account for 80% of the revenue of the region’s fisheries.
At the Fukushima power plant, engineers continued the arduous task of trying to pump contaminated water from turbine rooms and trenches, which is hampering work to connect the reactor cooling systems to the national grid.
Tepco, the power station operator, plans to spray parts of the site with a resin to stop radioactive dust blowing off the site and is considering shrouding the reactor buildings with sheets to reduce radiation being released into the air.
Fish and other sea creatures are unlikely to be seriously harmed by the radioactive leaks, even in the most contaminated areas. After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, fish in three freshwater lakes within the exclusion zone became contaminated with radioactive caesium but showed no obvious health problems, though some fish were born with reproductive abnormalities which may have been caused by radiation, said James Smith, an environmental physicist at Portsmouth University who studied fish in the area.
While fish accumulate radioactive contamination, this happens less in the ion-rich waters of the oceans than in freshwater lakes.