Radiation surge at nuclear plant causes panic
Published 28/03/2011 | 05:00
A SURGE in levels of radiation in the water at Japan's stricken nuclear plant yesterday dealt a serious setback to efforts to avert a meltdown and stoked public anxiety about food contamination.
The leap in radiation within the Fukushima power plant was located in the turbine building of No.2 reactor, where a reading of more than 1,000 millisieverts per hour was recorded, the highest since the plant was damaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Exposure to 100 millisieverts per year is believed to be the lowest level at which cancer risks are evident, while a dose of 1,000 millisieverts can cause temporary radiation sickness, including nausea and vomiting.
Tepco, the operator of the plant, has evacuated workers from the building following the detection of the rising radiation levels amid speculation that the cause may be damage to the nuclear fuel rods.
There was alarm earlier in the day when an announcement said: "This figure is 10 million times higher than water usually kept in a reactor," though the company later retracted that calculation without giving another, confirmed radiation reading.
"We are examining the cause of this, but no work is being done there because of the high level of radiation.
"High levels of caesium and other substances are being detected, which usually should not be found in reactor water.
"There is a high possibility that fuel rods are being damaged."
However, a few hours later, the spokesman said a new test had found radiation levels 100,000 times above normal -- far better than the first results, though still very high.
But the spokesman ruled out having an independent monitor oversee the various checks despite the errors.
The radiation spike came shortly after it emerged that nearby Pacific seawater was also contaminated to 1,850 times the legal limits.
The discovery added to public concern that contamination would spread to Japan's seafood-dependent food chain, despite government assurances that there was no health risk and that the threat would dissipate within a week.
Since the plant was damaged, radiation has been detected in about 100 food products in Tokyo and surrounding areas, including milk and vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and turnips.
There have also been concerns about tap water in Tokyo, although radioactivity levels have dropped in the capital's water supplies, with the latest tests showing three consecutive daily declines to below the government's safety limits.
As Japan entered its third week of battling the biggest nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl disaster, Taku Ohara, an official at the ministry of health, labour and welfare, said: "The number of radiation-affected foods will likely increase as each prefecture is testing its produce."
At the weekend, the government publicly criticised Tepco for failing to be more transparent about the situation.
Questions were also raised over safety procedures for the nuclear plant's 500-plus workforce after three workers suffered burns and high radiation exposure after stepping in contaminated water. The latest official figure for the dead and missing from the earthquake and tsunami stands at 27,242.(© Daily Telegraph, London)