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Fri 25 Mar 2011 11:54 AM

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Japan workers exposed to 10,000 times safe radiation

Japan nuclear concerns increase as setback hits efforts to cool crippled reactor at Fukushima

Japan workers exposed to 10,000 times safe radiation
(© 2011 Google, GeoEye)

Japan said on
Friday that workers who suffered burns while trying to cool a crippled
reactor were exposed to radiation levels 10,000 times higher than
expected, adding evidence that the crucial containment vessel for
nuclear fuel had been ruptured.

That could mean a serious
reversal after days of apparently steady progress in containing
radiation leaks after a killer earthquake and tsunami tore through the
Fukushima complex north of Tokyo two weeks ago.

More
than 700 engineers have been working in shifts around the clock to
stabilise the six-reactor Fukushima complex but they pulled out of some
parts when three workers replacing a cable at the No. 3 reactor were
exposed to high contamination on Thursday, officials said.

Two were taken to hospital with possible radiation burns after radioactive water seeped over their boots.

"The
contaminated water had 10,000 times the amount of radiation as would be
found in water circulating from a normally operating reactor," said
Japanese nuclear agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama.

"It is possible that there is damage to the reactor."

Officials
have previously said that small explosions at the reactor could have
damaged it, but the high seepage of radiation could imply worse damage
than previously believed.

The No. 3
reactor is also the only one to use plutonium in its fuel mix, which is
more toxic than the uranium used in the other reactors.

Also
on Friday, Japan prodded tens of thousands of more people living near
Fukushima to leave, while China said two Japanese travellers arriving in
the country were found to have exceedingly high radiation levels.

No one in Japan, other than the three workers at the reactor have been reported exposed to high radiation.

"Tests
showed that the two travellers seriously exceeded the limit," China's
General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine
said, referring to radiation levels.

The
agency's statement said the two travellers, who arrived in the eastern
city of Wuxi from Tokyo were given medical treatment and presented no
radiation risk to others.

Japan's
chief cabinet secretary said 120,000 people living near Fukushima should
consider leaving, although he insisted it was because getting supplies
to the region was difficult and maintained it was not an evacuation
order.

"Given how prolonged the
situation has become, we think it would be desirable for people to
voluntarily evacuate in order to meet their social needs," Yuki Edano
said.

Japan evacuated a 20km
(12 mile) zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant after it was severly
damaged by a killer earthquake and tsunami two weeks ago that also left
more than 27,000 people dead or missing.

Seventy thousand people left their homes.

Edano
has maintained there was no need currently to expand the evacuation
zone, but an official at the Science Ministry confirmed that daily
radiation levels in an area 30 km (18 miles) northwest of the plant
exceeded the annual limit.

Safety
fears at the plant and beyond - radiation particles have been found as
far away as Iceland - are compounding Japan's worst crisis since World
War Two.

As well as causing the
most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, the magnitude 9.0
quake and ensuing wall of water that tore in from the Pacific killed
9,811 people and left 17,541 more missing, according to latest police
figures.

Kyodo news agency said the death toll had topped 10,000.

Despite the increased radiation reports, there has been some progress in containing the crisis at Fukushima.

Two
of the reactors are now regarded as safe in what is called a cold
shutdown. Four remain volatile, emitting steam and smoke periodically,
but work is advancing to restart water pumps needed to cool fuel rods
inside those reactors.

"It's much more hopeful," said Tony Roulstone, a nuclear energy expert at Cambridge University.

The
United States has been offering aid to its ally Japan, and two of its
barges will together provide 525,000 gallons (2 million litres) of
water for cooling the reactors.

But heightened by widespread public ignorance of the technicalities of radiation, alarm has been spreading.

Vegetable
and milk shipments from the areas near the plant have been stopped, and
Tokyo's 13 million residents were told this week not to give tap water
to babies after contamination from rain put radiation at twice the
safety level.

It dropped back to
safe levels the next day, and the city governor cheerily drank water in
front of cameras at a water purifying plant.

Despite
government reassurances and appeals for people not to panic, there has
been a rush on bottled water and shelves in many Tokyo shops remained
empty of the product on Friday.

In
the latest contamination finds, Kyodo reported that radioactive caesium
1.8 times higher than the standard level was found in a leafy vegetable
grown at a Tokyo research facility.

Experts say radiation leaking from the plant is still mainly below levels of exposure from flights or dental and medical x-rays.

Nevertheless,
Singapore, Australia, the United States and Hong Kong are all
restricting food and milk imports from the zone. Other nations are
screening Japanese food, and German shipping companies are simply
avoiding the nation.

In Japan's
north, more than a quarter of a million people are in shelters.
Exhausted rescuers are still sifting through the wreckage of towns and
villages, retrieving bodies and pulling out photos for the consolation
of survivors.

Authorities are burying unidentified bodies in mass graves, despite Japan's usual Buddhist practice of cremation.

Amid
the suffering, though, there was a sense that Japan was turning the
corner in its humanitarian crisis. Aid flowed to refugees, and phone,
electricity, postal and bank services began returning to the north,
albeit sometimes by makeshift means.

"Things are getting much better," said 57-year-old Tsutomu Hirayama, with his family at an evacuation centre in Ofunato.

"For
the first two or three days, we had only one rice ball and water for
each meal. I thought, how long is this going to go on? Now we get lots
of food, it's almost like luxury."

The
estimated $300 billion damage from the quake and
tsunami makes this the world's costliest natural disaster, dwarfing
Japan's 1995 Kobe quake and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

Global
financial market jitters over Japan's crisis have calmed, though supply
disruptions are affecting the automobile and technology sectors.

Finance
Minister Yoshihiko Noda said the Group of Seven rich nations would
continue to monitor the foreign exchange market and cooperate again if
needed after last week's intervention to curb a surge in Japan's yen
currency.

Foreigner investor buying
of Japanese shares actually reached a record high in the week after the
disaster, data showed, as bargain-hunters leaped in when stocks first
plunged.

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