Fire at Japanese nuclear reactor raises radiation risk

By REUTERS
March 16, 2011 01:24

UN atomic chief frustrated at lack of information from Japan; More than 10,000 feared killed by quake, tsunami; 140,000 told to stay indoors.

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Japanese prepare for radiation cleanup

Japan Radiation Cleanup 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

TOKYO- Japan raced to avert a catastrophe after fire broke out on Wednesday at a nuclear plant that has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo, prompting some people to flee the capital and triggering growing international alarm at the escalating crisis.

The operator of the quake-crippled plant said workers were trying to put out the blaze at the building housing the No.4 reactor of the nuclear facility in Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

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Experts say spent fuel rods in a cooling pool at the reactor could be exposed by the fire and spew more radiation into the atmosphere. Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said two workers were missing after blasts at the facility a day earlier blew a hole in the building housing the No. 4 reactor.

In the first hint of international frustration at the pace of updates from Japan, Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he wanted more timely and detailed information.

"We do not have all the details of the information so what we can do is limited," Amano told a news conference in Vienna. "I am trying to further improve the communication."

The US Department of Energy said it had sent a team of 34 people to help Japan with the crisis.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Tuesday urged people within 30 km (18 miles) of the facility -- a population of 140,000 -- to remain indoors, as authorities grappled with the world's most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

Officials in Tokyo said radiation in the capital was 10 times normal at one point but not a threat to human health in the sprawling high-tech city of 13 million people.

Toxicologist Lee Tin-lap at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said such a radiation level was not an immediate threat to people but the long-term consequences were unknown.

"You are still breathing this into your lungs, and there is passive absorption in the skin, eyes and mouth and we really do not know what long-term impact that would have," Lee told Reuters by telephone.



Winds over the plant will blow from the north along the Pacific coast early on Wednesday and then from the northwest towards the ocean during the day, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

In a sign of regional fears about the risk of radiation, China said it would evacuate its citizens from areas worst affected but it had detected no abnormal radiation levels at home. Air China said it had canceled some flights to Tokyo.

The US Navy said some arriving warships would deploy on the west coast of Japan's main Honshu island instead of heading to the east coast as planned because of "radiological and navigation hazards".

Several embassies advised staff and citizens to leave affected areas in Japan. Tourists cut short vacations and multinational companies either urged staff to leave or said they were considering plans to move outside Tokyo.

The full extent of the destruction from last Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the tsunami that followed it was becoming clear as rescuers combed through the region north of Tokyo where officials say at least 10,000 people were killed.

Whole villages and towns have been wiped off the map by Friday's wall of water, triggering an international humanitarian effort of epic proportions. A 6.4-magnitude aftershock -- a significant earthquake in its own right on any other day -- shook buildings in Tokyo late on Tuesday but caused no damage.

About 850,000 households in the north were still without electricity in near-freezing weather, Tohuku Electric Power Co. said, and the government said at least 1.5 million households lack running water. Tens of thousands of people were missing.

Hiromichi Shirakawa, chief economist for Japan at Credit Suisse, said in a note to clients that the economic loss will likely be around 14-15 trillion yen ($171-183 billion) just to the region hit by the quake and tsunami.

The earthquake has forced many firms to suspend production and global companies -- from semiconductor makers to shipbuilders -- face disruptions to operations after the quake and tsunami destroyed vital infrastructure, damaged ports and knocked out factories.

"The earthquake could have great implications on the global economic front," said Andre Bakhos, director of market analytics at Lec Securities in New York. "If you shut down Japan, there could be a global recession."


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