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Japan braces for potential radiation catastrophe

Shinichi Saoshiro, Chisa Fujioka

Japan faced a potential catastrophe on Tuesday after a nuclear power plant exploded and sent low levels of radiation floating towards Tokyo.

Japan faced a potential catastrophe on Tuesday after a quake-crippled nuclear power plant exploded and sent low levels of radiation floating towards Tokyo, prompting some people to flee the capital and others to stock up on essential supplies.

The crisis appeared to escalate late in the day when the operators of the facility said one of two blasts had blown a hole in the building housing a reactor, which meant spent nuclear fuel was exposed to the atmosphere.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan urged people within 30km of the facility—a population of 140 000—to remain indoors amid the world’s most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

Officials in Tokyo—240km to the south of the plant—said radiation in the capital was 10 times normal by evening but posed no 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.

About eight hours after the explosions, the United Nations weather agency said winds were dispersing radioactive material over the Pacific Ocean, away from Japan and other Asian countries.

As concern about the crippling economic impact of the nuclear and earthquake disasters mounted, Japan’s Nikkei index fell as much as 14% before ending down 10,6%, compounding a slide of 6,2% the day before. The two-day fall has wiped about $620-billion off the market.

Regional fears
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 cancelled some flights to Tokyo.

The United States 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”.

The risks of the US relief mission have been illustrated by the growing number of US personnel exposed to low-levels of radiation. Still, a Navy spokesperson said exposure levels of returning crew were well within safety limits and that operations to assist close ally Japan would continue.

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.

“Everyone is going out of the country today,” said Gunta Brunner, a 25-year-old creative director from Argentina preparing to board a flight at Narita airport. “With the radiation, it’s like you cannot escape and you can’t see it.”

There have been a total of four explosions at the plant since it was damaged in last Friday’s massive quake and tsunami. The most recent were blasts at reactors number two and number four.

Concerns now centre on damage to a part of the number four reactor’s core, known as the suppression pool, which tries to cool and trap the majority of cesium, iodine and strontium in its chilled water.

Wiped off the map
The full extent of the destruction from last Friday’s 9,0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that followed it was still 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 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 Company said, and the government said at least 1,5-million households lack running water. Tens of thousands of people were missing.

Kan has said Japan is facing its worst crisis since World War II.—Reuters

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