Radiation level in Japan high enough to endanger people

Tokyo: Japan`s nuclear crisis veered towards a catastrophe on Tuesday after explosions at two more reactors and a fire rocked the quake-stricken nuclear power plants at Fukushima and Prime Minister Naoto Kan warned that radiation levels were now high enough to endanger humans.

The blast and fire have turned the nuclear plants "critical", the country`s chief spokesman announced as the melting reactors spewed large amounts of radioactive materials triggering fear of widespread contamination.

Kan in his address to the nation at 11 am local time warned that the radiation had already spread from the crippled reactors and there was "a very high risk of further leakage" as the French embassy here said that low-level radioactive could reach the capital Tokyo within hours.

The Japanese Prime Minister asked an estimated 140,000 people living within 30 kms of the facility north of capital to remain indoors and to conserve power as threat loomed large of Japan`s crisis turning into a Chernobyl-like disaster.

Kyodo quoting nuclear experts said radiation equivalent to 400 times the level to which people can be exposed in one year was detected near the Fukushima No 3 reactor.

Residents within a 20-km radius of the plant have already been ordered to vacate the area following Saturday`s hydrogen blast at the plant`s No 1 reactor.

The Japanese news agency quoting Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the high radiation level detected at 10:22 am local time after the explosions at the No 2 and No 4 reactors "would certainly have negative effects on the human body".

Kyodo quoting Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said the problem could develop into a critical "meltdown as the explosions had damaged No 2 reactor`s container vessel.

TEPCO said that most of the 800 workers had been ordered out from the stricken reactors, but the utility was continuing operation with the staff of 50 specialists to pour sea water into the troubled reactor to prevent its further over heating.

"The possibility of a meltdown cannot be ruled out as the fuel rods have been damaged," TEPCO said.

In Ibaraki prefecture, south of Fukushima, radiation levels were 100 times higher while in Kanagawa prefecture, southwest of Tokyo, radiation levels were up by nine times the normal level.

The Tokyo metropolitan authorities also said the higher radiation levels were in the air.

The French embassy in the city in an advisory warned that low level radioactive winds could hit the capital from the plant located 240 kms away in about 10 hours.

TEPCO also said that a fire had occurred at the No 4 reactor at 9:40 am local time. The fire was noticed in a storage facility were spent nuclear fuel is stored. It was extinguished later.

All the four plants at Fukushima are reported to be in critical stage as the core of the No 1, 2 and 3 are believed to have partially melted following Friday`s 9 magnitude earthquake. All the four reactors have been shut down after the quake.

Experts say the damage to the reactors would enter the most critical stage in the next two days and wind factors could decide whether the radioactive material was blown into the sea or towards populated areas.

The New York Times quoting nuclear health experts said that radiation levels of 400 times the normal level were risky and any rise above the level could harm the human body.

Though the Prime Minister made a plea for calm, residents in Tokyo and Japan`s other cities were making beeline to shops and malls to stock up supplies.

Canned goods, batteries, bread, bottled water and fruits have vanished from the source and there were long queues of cars at gas stations.

"The situation is hysterical and people are indulging in panic buying," Kyodo quoted residents as saying. High speed bullet trains and even metro are plying few and far between.

Retailers said that they hadn`t seen such panic in years perhaps since the oil crisis in 1970.

There is also mounting fear in Japan`s neighbourhood about the risk of radiation. Some Chinese airlines cancelled flights to Tokyo and Beijing voiced fear about the safety of its citizens in Japan and announced plans to evacuate them.

There are over 300,000 Chinese nationals living in five disaster-hit prefectures. It is not only the Chinese, several other embassies have advised their staff and citizens to leave the affected areas.

The Japanese media said the public at large was taking the government`s announcements that radiation risks were still at manageable levels with a pinch of salt.

Kyodo said survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings had approached the authorities asking the government to take the crisis at the quake-crippled nuclear plants more seriously.

"Survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki raised concerns about potential health problem due to leaking radioactive materials. Some even questioned the safety of nuclear power in the country," the agency said.

"Radioactive rays are invisible and even if you are exposed to them you won`t notice…and it is difficult to prevent," the agency quoted 76-year-old Sakue Shimohira as saying in Hiroshima.