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4.1.2011 How Safe Is Safe in Japan?

By Der Spiegel

Japanese nuclear watchdogs have now joined the chorus of international experts calling for the evacuation zone surrounding the stricken nuclear power plants in northeastern Japan to be expanded -- but the government is refusing to budge. Meanwhile the EU debates what sorts of food to ban.
Nuclear experts in Japan called for an expanded evacuation zone Thursday after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found radiation levels in the village of Iitate, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from a stricken nuclear power plant, that exceeded one of its criteria for evacuation.

The Japanese government imposed a 20-kilometer (12-mile) evacuation zone around from the Fukushima 1 plant on March 12, one day after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami crippled the plant and its cooling systems. The government told residents within the next 10-kilometer band to try to avoiding going outside.
Concerns have risen in the meantime of radiation leaks at Fukushima 1. The head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Bill Borchardt, told the US Senate on Tuesday that units 2 and 3 at the Fukushima 2 plant may have "some primary containment damage," meaning the vessels around the core units may be breached.

Borchardt said the seawater dumped on used fuel rods by helicopters and fire hoses in the days after the tsunami is also leaking out. "The exact flow path of that leakage has not been determined," he said Tuesday, "but it's a result of the water that they've been injecting since shortly after the onset of the event."
Roughly 70,000 people live within the 20-kilometer radius of the troubled plant, and 130,000 within the next 10-kilometer band.

Government Says No, For Now

The government in Tokyo has so far resisted the expanded-evacuation advice. At a press briefing on Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters, "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."

Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said it was checking radiation levels in Iiate. Most residents have evacuated voluntarily, but about 100 locals remain.

"We take it seriously," spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said of the IAEA report. "We may consider asking these people to evacuate. But we need more time to study the situation."

NISA also reported Thursday that radioactive iodine levels in the seawater near the plant have surpassed 4,000 times their legal limit. Nishiyama it was "a possibility" that the new levels -- the highest recorded since the the crisis began -- indicate a continuous radiation leak from the plant.

But he said regulators and engineers had not found the leak.

IAEA and Greenpeace
The IAEA warning on Thursday bolstered Greenpeace radiation experts, who had released independent findings at a press conference in Tokyo on Wednesday -- and also called for the evacuation radius to be widened to 40 kilometers.

"Anyone spending just a few days in these contaminated areas would be exposed to the maximum allowable annual dose of radiation, yet most people are still living in towns like Iitate," said Greenpeace radiation safety expert Jan van de Putte. "The government must act immediately to evacuate the most contaminated areas, with a priority for children and pregnant women."

He added, "Exposing a large number of people to this level of radiation creates a collective risk which is very significant over a long term, in terms of years. Our main concern is an increased incidence of cancer."

Emergency crews at the complex are continuing their battle to stop the spread of radioactivity and keep the nuclear fuel rods cool while reconnecting its internal cooling system.

New Ideas

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant's operator, will test the use of a sprayed, synthetic resin into keep radioactive dust from either being carried away by the wind or dropping into the ocean with rainwater. The Japanese government also floated the ideas Wednesday of using a mesh tarp to keep the dust from becoming airborne and of pumping contaminated water into a tanker ship.

Foreign leaders have also offered help. On Wednesday German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke on the phone with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, promising Germany would do all it could to help Japan address the crisis.

Both Germany and the United States have offered to send special robots to help in repairing the damaged plants. On Thursday, a plane carrying a massive pump also took off from the southwestern German city of Stuttgart. Three more pumps will follow in the next few days.

The pumps, each of which weighs more than 80 metric tons and is more than 60 meters (200 feet) high, will be used to pump water into the plants to help with cooling efforts. Later, they could be used to pump concrete over the troubled reactors.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Japan on Thursday to show his country's support. A team of experts in handling radioactive wastewater from Areva, France's state-owned nuclear reactor maker, has also flown to Japan.

Food Worries

Meanwhile, cabbages exported from Japan to Singapore were found to have nine times the international recommended safety level of radiation, and milk was found in the northwestern state of Washington in the United States that had "miniscule" levels.

The worries have prompted the Japanese government to halt exports of vegetables and milk produced in the area near the plant. At the same time, it has asked nations belonging to the World Trade Organization to not impose "unjustifiable" importation bans.

Since March 26, food and animal feed arriving in Germany from Japan has required a certificate indicating it has been checked for radioactivity. But a dispute has broken out in Germany over EU guidelines for radiation levels.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung on Wednesday reported concerns first voiced by the German consumer protection agency Foodwatch and the Munich Environmental Institute -- that an emergency measure passed recently by the European Commission had raised the allowable level of radioactivity in foodstuffs imported from Japan.
Later in the day, an EU spokesman denied that claim, saying that "absolutely nothing has been raised." Instead, the spokesman said, regulations had gone into force that were first passed in 1987 after the Chernobyl disaster.

Foodwatch and the Munich Environmental Institute are calling for complete bans on food imports from Japan. But Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner says such a measure is not yet necessary. Aigner, who spent Wednesday at Frankfurt's airport with teams checking for radioactivity on products flown into the country, said radiation had yet to be found in products brought to Germany. But the issue could be revisited if circumstances change, she said.