Radiation high outside safety zone


Radiation measured at a village 40km from Japan's crippled nuclear plant exceeded a criterion for evacuation, the UN nuclear watchdog said today, the latest sign of widening consequences from the crisis.

The finding could increase pressure on Japan's government to extend the exclusion zone beyond 20km around the Fukushima power plant, which has leaked radioactive particles since it was hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11th.

Criticised for weak leadership during the country's worst crisis since the second World War, Japan prime minister Naoto Kan has said he is considering enlarging the evacuation area to force 130,000 people to move, in addition to 70,000 already displaced.

"The first assessment indicates that one of the IAEA operational criteria for evacuation is exceeded in Iitate village," Denis Flory, a deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said.

"We have advised (Japan) to carefully assess the situation and they have indicated that it is already under assessment," he told a news conference.

Greenpeace this week said it had confirmed radiation levels in this village northwest of the plant high enough to evacuate. But Japan's nuclear safety agency on Monday rebuffed a call by the environmental group to widen the evacuation zone.

The IAEA also said it had been told by Singapore that some cabbages imported from Japan contained radioactive iodine above the levels recommended for international trade.

"Some samples were over the Codex Alimentarius values recommended for international trade," said Mr Flory.

David Byron, a UN food agency official seconded to the IAEA, said the recommended level was 100 becquerels per kg and that one of the samples in Singapore was up to nine times above that. "Other samples were also over that level," he said, although not as much.

IAEA director general Yukiya Amano said the situation at the Fukushima plant remained very serious despite increased efforts by authorities to get it under control.

Saying the Japanese authorities had faced additional difficulties but also experienced some successes, he said he had sent invitations to the IAEA's 151 member states for a ministerial nuclear safety meeting on June 20-24 in Vienna.

"It should be a forward-looking meeting," he said.

Mr Amano had said on Monday he wanted IAEA member states to assess the response to Japan's nuclear emergency and discuss ways to prevent such a disaster happening again, adding that the international community needed a coordinated response.

The disaster has prompted a rethink of nuclear power around the world, just as the technology was starting to regain momentum as a way to fight global warming.

Hundreds of engineers have been toiling for nearly three weeks to cool the Fukushima plant's reactors and avert a catastrophic meltdown of fuel rods, although the situation appears to have moved back from that nightmare scenario.

In a potentially negative development, Mr Flory said the agency had heard there might be "recriticality" at the plant, in which a nuclear chain reaction would resume, even though the reactors were automatically shut down at the time of the quake.

That could lead to more radiation releases, but it would not be "the end of the world," Mr Flory said. "Recriticality does not mean that the reactor is going to blow up. It may be something really local. We might not even see it if it happens."