Japan smoke from nuclear reactor 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Tokyo Electric Power Co)
TOKYO - Pressure mounted on Japan on Thursday to expand the evacuation zone around its stricken nuclear power plants after high levels of radiation were found outside the zone and radioactivity in seawater reached more than 4,000 times its legal limit.
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The UN nuclear watchdog suggested Japan consider widening its 20-km (12-mile) zone after high radiation was detected at twice that distance from the facility.
Nearly three weeks after an earthquake and tsunami sparked the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986, Prime Minister Naoto Kan is facing heavy criticism for sticking with the original exclusion zone.
The government has encouraged those living in a 20-30 km ring, a population of 136,000, to leave but has not ordered them to do so, advising only that they remain indoors.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said radiation at Iitate village, 40 km (25 mile) from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, exceeded a criterion for evacuation.
Japan's nuclear safety agency said an extension of the zone should be considered, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano gave no indication that the government was poised to do it.
"At the moment, we have no reason to think that the radiation will have an effect on people's health. We need to closely monitor the situation and see if the radiation is consistently high," Edano told a news briefing.
The safety agency said radioactive iodine levels found in seawater near the damaged plant was now 4,385 times more than the legal limit -- the highest level recorded since the nuclear crisis started on March 11 -- and it was possible that radiation was flowing continously into the ocean.Sarkozy heads to Tokyo
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was due to arrive on Thursday, the first leader to visit since the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Sarkozy, who currently chairs the G20 and G8 blocs of nations, is due to meet his Japanese counterpart to show support for Japan's efforts to overcome the crisis.
France, the world's most nuclear-dependent country, has flown in experts from 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.
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 "minuscule" levels of radiation in milk samples on its west coast.