Foreign countries scramble to get citizens out of Japan

IAEA: No major worsening at Tokyo nuclear plant but No.4 reactor still "major safety concern"; Post-tsunami death toll rises to nearly 14,000.

By REUTERS
March 17, 2011 18:38
4 minute read.
Smoke rises from Fukushima Daiichi 1 nuke reactor

Japan nuclear explosion 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/NTV via Reuters TV)

The French government on Thursday began evacuating its citizens from Japan on special flights, and Britain was planning a similar move, as global concerns grew about the health risks from leaking nuclear plants.

The announcements came as the death toll in Japan continued to rise on Thursday, with 5,178 reported dead and 8,606 unaccounted for, according to Japan National Police estimates. Approximately 380,000 evacuees live in shelters, police said.

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The United States also said it was sending aircraft to Japan to help Americans worried about spreading radiation leave the country.

US officials expressed alarm, but took pains not to criticize the Japanese government, which has shown signs of being overwhelmed by the crisis, but Washington's actions indicated a divide with the Japanese about the perilousness of the situation.

While countries were scrambling to get their citizens out Japan, the UN nuclear watchdog said on Thursday the situation at the damaged Japanese nuclear power plant remained very serious but no major worsening had occurred since Wednesday.

Graham Andrew, a senior official of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said the plant's No.4 reactor was a "major safety concern."

He told a news conference: "The current situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant remains very serious ... (but) there has been no significant worsening since yesterday."

Operators of a quake-crippled nuclear plant in Japan dumped water on overheating reactors, while the United States expressed growing alarm about leaking radiation and said it was chartering aircraft to help Americans leave the country.

Engineers were rushing against time to run in a power line off the main grid to fire up the water pumps needed to cool two reactors and the spent fuel rods considered most at risk.

Also on Thursday, a Swedish official said that low concentrations of radioactive particles are heading eastwards from Japan's disaster-hit nuclear power plant towards North America.

Lars-Erik De Geer, research director at the Swedish Defence Research Institute, a government agency, was citing data from a network of international monitoring stations.

He stressed that the levels were not dangerous for people.

The Foreign Ministry on Thursday recommended that Israelis in Tokyo leave the city for more southern locations further away from the earthquake-damaged nuclear reactor, or consider leaving the country all together.

Israelis were also advised to avoid unnecessary trips to Japan until further notice.

Israelis in Japan were advised to remain in contact with the embassy in Tokyo, which is operating as usual.

While Japanese officials were scrambling with a patchwork of fixes at the facility, the top US nuclear regulator warned that reactor No.4's cooling pool for spent fuel rods may have run dry and another was leaking.

"There is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures," Gregory Jaczko, head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told a US House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

"It would be very difficult for emergency workers to get near the reactors. The doses they could experience would potentially be lethal doses in a very short period of time."

The plant operator said it believed the No.4 reactor spent fuel pool still had water as of Wednesday.

Japan said the United States would fly a high-altitude drone over the stricken complex to gauge the situation, and had offered to send nuclear experts.



A State Department official said flights would be laid on for Americans to leave and family of embassy staff had been authorised to leave if they wanted.

Markets swoon, G7 ministers to hold emergency call

A stream of gloomy warnings and reports on the Japan crisis from experts and officials around the world triggered a sharp fall in US financial markets, with all three major stock indexes slumping on fears of slower worldwide growth.

In a sign of the degree of concern among top policymakers, one G7 central banker, who asked not to be identified, said he was "extremely worried" about the wider effects of the crisis in Japan, the world's third-largest economy.

"I think the world economy is going to go right down and it has happened at a time when financial markets are still very fragile," he said.

G7 finance ministers will hold a conference call later on Thursday to discuss steps to help Japan cope with the financial and economic impact of the disaster, a source said.


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