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Growing fears

March 21, 2011

Higher-than-normal radiation has been detected in a sample of seawater taken near Japan's damaged nuclear plant. Officials sought to calm fears, saying there was no threat to human health.

A woman is screened at an evacuee center for leaked radiation
Evacuees from the area are being screened for radiation levelsImage: AP

Health fears continue to grow in Japan, where smoke and haze rose anew early Tuesday from two reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Technicians have attached power cables to all six reactors and have started a pump at one of them in attempt to cool the overheating nuclear rods housed there - estimated to be nearly six years' worth of waste, or some three times the amount usually held in nuclear reactors' active cores.

Smoke and steam have risen from the reactors throughout Japan's two-week nuclear crisis, which experts say probably released a small amount of radioactive particles into the atmosphere.

Dangerous water

A sample of water taken from the Pacific Ocean near Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant has caused for new alarm.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said the level of radioactive iodine found in the sample was 126.7 times higher than the government-set limit, while the level of caesium was 24.8 times higher. The sample was taken on Monday about 100 meters (320 feet) south of the Fuhkushima No. 1 plant.

However, TEPCO officials played down the risk to human health.

Plume of water towards reactor
With pumps out of action, workers are dousing the reactors with waterImage: Picture alliance/dpa

"It would have to be drunk for a whole year in order to accumulate to one millisievert," a TEPCO official told reporters in Tokyo. Under guidlines set out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that is the recommended maximum radiation level per person per year.

An incident earlier on Monday also did little to ease global fears. Workers were evacuated after gray smoke was seen rising from reactor No. 3, which is among the most badly damaged at the six-reactor complex, a plant spokesman said.

The workers had only been pulled out of the immediate area around the reactor and not from the whole plant, he said.

At 3:55 p.m. local time (6:55 p.m. GMT), a "light gray plume of smoke" rose from the fuel storage pool of reactor No. 3, a TEPCO spokesman told reporters.

Later the smoke stopped from reactor No. 3 but then picked up at reactor No. 2.

The workers are repeatedly enduring high doses of radiation as they continue to try to avert a nuclear disaster which could harm millions of people. An earthquake and resulting tsunami on March 11 that left some 21,000 people dead or missing, knocked out the reactor's power supply and cooling systems, threatening a nuclear meltdown.

Food contamination

Fresh reports surfaced Monday that locally produced spinach and milk had been contaminated by radiation.

According to Governor Masaru Hashimoto of Ibaraki Prefecture, the radiation posed no health risks, but he also told farmers to refrain "voluntarily" from shipping spinach.

The Japanese government has ordered a halt to all shipments of spinach from four prefectures surrounding the plant and has also banned milk shipments from the site's home province of Fukushima.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano announced the measures at a briefing amid increasing concerns over contamination of some foods and tap water with trace amounts of radioactivity.

Milk on a Japanese supermarket shelf
Japanese consumers are concerned about possible radiation in milkImage: Picture alliance/dpa

But "even if you eat and drink them several times it will not be a health hazard. So I would like you to act calmly," Yukio Edano said during a news conference.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday that the risk of radiation in food had so far been underestimated.

"It's a lot more serious than anybody thought in the early days when we thought that this kind of problem can be limited to 20 to 30 kilometers," Peter Cordingley, Manila-based spokesman for the WHO's regional office for the Western Pacific, told Reuters.

"It's safe to suppose that some contaminated produce got out of the contamination zone," he added.

Role reassessment needed

The head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, who made a short visit to Japan to assess the situation last week, rejected criticism of what some saw as its slow response to the crisis.

Speaking at a meeting of the IAEA's board of governors in Vienna on Monday, Director General Yukiya Amano said the body played only an advisory role, with the actually responsibility for safety lying with its member states.

At the same time though, he said the crisis in Japan showed the need for the IAEA's role to be reassessed.

"It was designed largely in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, before the information revolution," he said. "It reflects the realities of the 1980s, not of the 21st century."

Author: Natalia Dannenberg, Chuck Penfold, David Levitz (Reuters, AP, AFP)
Editor: Ian Johnson