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Tue 15 Mar 2011 09:16 PM

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Radiation cloud floats towards Tokyo, some residents flee

Officials say radiation levels 10 times higher than normal in capital city but still no risk to humans

Radiation cloud floats towards Tokyo, some residents flee
A person who is believed to be have been contaminated with radiation is carried to ambulance at a radiation treatment centre in Nihonmatsu city. (AFP/Getty Images)

Japan faced a
potential catastrophe on Tuesday after a quake-crippled nuclear power
plant exploded and sent low levels of radiation floating toward 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 30 km (18 miles) 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 - 240 km
(150 miles) 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.

Around
eight hours after the explosions, the UN 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
percent before ending down 10.6 percent, compounding a slide of 6.2
percent the day before. The two-day fall has wiped some $620bn off
the market.

Authorities have spent
days desperately trying to prevent the water which is designed to cool
the radioactive cores of the reactors from running dry, overheating and
emitting dangerous radioactive materials.

They
said they may use helicopters to pour water on the most critical
reactor, No. 4, within two or three days, but did not say why they would
have to wait to do this.

"The
possibility of further radioactive leakage is heightening," a grim-faced
Kan said in an address to the nation earlier in the day.

"We
are making every effort to prevent the leak from spreading. I know that
people are very worried but I would like to ask you to act calmly."

Levels
of 400 millisieverts per hour had been recorded near the No. 4 reactor,
the government said. Exposure to over 100 millisieverts a year is a
level which can lead to cancer, according to the World Nuclear
Association.

The plant operator
pulled out 750 workers, leaving just 50, and a 30-km (19 mile) no-fly
zone was imposed around the reactors. There have been no detailed
updates on what levels the radiation reached inside the exclusion zone
where people live.

"Radioactive
material will reach Tokyo but it is not harmful to human bodies because
it will be dissipated by the time it gets to Tokyo," said Koji Yamazaki,
professor at Hokkaido University graduate school of environmental
science. "If the wind gets stronger, it means the material flies faster
but it will be even more dispersed in the air."

A Reuters reporter using a Geiger counter showed negligible levels of radiation in the capital.

Despite
pleas for calm, residents rushed to shops in Tokyo to stock up on
supplies. Don Quixote, a multi-storey, 24-hour general store in Roppongi
district, sold out of radios, flashlights, candles and sleeping bags.

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
canceled some flights to Tokyo.

The
US 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 U.S. personnel exposed to low-levels of radiation. Still, a
Navy spokesman 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."

Japanese
media have became more critical of Kan's handling of the disaster and
criticized the government and nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric
Power Co (TEPCO) for its failure to provide enough information on the
incident.

Kan himself lambasted the
operator for taking so long to inform his office about one of the
blasts, demanding to know "what the hell is going on?", Kyodo reported.

Kyodo said Kan had ordered TEPCO not to pull employees out of the plant.

"The
TV reported an explosion. But nothing was said to the premier's office
for about an hour," a Kyodo reporter quoted Kan telling power company
executives.

Lam Ching-wan, a
chemical pathologist at the University of Hong Kong, said the blasts
could expose the population to longer-term exposure to radiation, which
can raise the risk of thyroid and bone cancers and leukemia. Children
and fetuses are especially vulnerable, he said.

"Very
acute radiation, like that which happened in Chernobyl and to the
Japanese workers at the nuclear power station, is unlikely for the
population," he said.

Nuclear
radiation is an especially sensitive issue for Japanese following the
country's worst human catastrophe -- the US atomic bombs dropped on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

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 No. 2 and No. 4.

Concerns now center on damage to a part of the
No. 4 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.

Authorities had previously
been trying to prevent meltdowns in the complex's nuclear reactors by
flooding the chambers with sea water to cool them.

Murray
Jennex, a professor at San Diego State University in California, said
the crisis in Japan was worse than the Three Mile Island disaster of
1979.

"But you're nowhere near a
Chernobyl ... Chernobyl there was no impediment to release, it just blew
everything out into the atmosphere," he said. "You've still got a big
chunk of the containment there holding most of it in."

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 Co. said, and the
government said at least 1.5 million households lack running water. Tens
of thousands of people were missing.

Toshiyuki
Suzuki, 61, has a heart pacemaker and takes seven kinds of medicine a
day. He lost all of them when the waves swept away his home, along with
his father and son.

He cannot go to
hospitals because there is no gasoline at local fuel stations. "I am
having problems with walking and with my heartbeat. I absolutely need
medicine."

Kan has said Japan is facing its worst crisis since World War Two.

Hiromichi
Shirakawa, chief economist for Japan at Credit Suisse, said in a note
to clients that the economic loss will likely be around 14-15 trillion
yen ($171-183bn) just to the region hit by the quake and tsunami.

Even that would put it above the commonly accepted cost of the 1995 Kobe quake which killed 6,000 people.

The
earthquake has forced many firms to suspend production and global
companies -- from semiconductor makers to shipbuilders -- face
disruptions to operations after the quake and tsunami destroyed vital
infrastructure, damaged ports and knocked out factories.

"The
earthquake could have great implications on the global economic front,"
said Andre Bakhos, director of market analytics at Lec Securities in
New York. "If you shut down Japan, there could be a global recession."

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ahmed 9 years ago

maybe this is the price we human's have to pay for scientific progress and industrialization. very scary what our own inventions can do to us if they go awry. May God protect the millions in Japan who have suffered so much and still continue to suffer.