Monday, March 28, 2011

Japan Warns Residents Against Returning to Nuclear Zone

Japanese officials say residents are placing themselves at risk by returning to their homes in the evacuation zone surrounding the earthquake-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.

Radiation levels of water inside the plant's Number 2 reactor remain dangerously high, and officials said for the first time they believe the water is leaking from inside the plant's containment chamber where it has been exposed to melted-down fuel rods in the reactor's core. That would confirm suspicions that the reactor suffered at least a partial meltdown, and that the containment chamber has been breached.

At a press conference Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano appealed to residents not to go closer than 20 kilometers from the plant until officials determine it is safe to do so. He said the government hopes to announce soon that residents can go back to their homes in some parts of the zone for limited periods to collect belongings.

Also Monday, national NHK television said the death toll in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that damaged the plant has reached more than 10,800 with another 16,200 people still missing. It said 193,000 people are living in evacuation centers, down from about 300,000 last week.

Operators of the plant announced early Sunday that radiation levels 10 million times normal had been detected in the water. They later revised the figure down to 100,000 times normal.

Edano said the company blames the reporting error on fatigue among its workers, who have been struggling for two weeks under extremely dangerous and difficult conditions to restore cooling systems that prevent the fuel rods from overheating and emitting even more radiation. But he said the government considers such errors "unacceptable."

Radioactive water is also present in the buildings housing several other of the plant's six reactors. Officials say the water must be removed from the buildings and safely stored before work can be completed to restore electrical power to the plant's crucial water pumps.

Two workers were taken to a hospital last week after suffering burns to their feet while wading in the radioactive water at the Number 2 unit.

Edano said the highest priority is to make sure the radioactive water doesn't make its way into the ground water system.

Officials are also worried by high levels of radioactive iodine detected in the ocean to the east of the plant for the past three days. They said Monday that the radioactivity appears to be moving northward up the coast.

Radiation from the plant, which lost its cooling systems during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, has also been detected in milk and vegetables in a wide area around the plant and in tap water as far away as Tokyo, 220 kilometers to the south.
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