Meltdown threat rises in Japan

Japan faced a potential catastrophe on
Tuesday after a quake-crippled nuclear power plant exploded and sent low levels
of radiation floating toward Tokyo.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan urged
people within 18 miles of the facility north of Tokyo — a population of
140,000 — to remain indoors amid the world’s most serious nuclear accident
since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

Around eight hours after the
explosions, the U.N. weather agency said winds were dispersing radioactive
material over the Pacific Ocean, away from Japan and other Asian countries. The
Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization added that weather conditions
could change.

Radiation levels in the city of
Maebashi, 60 miles north of Tokyo, and in Chiba prefecture, nearer the city,
were up to 10 times normal levels, Kyodo news agency said. Only minute levels
were found in the capital itself, which so far were “not a problem”,
city officials said.

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

Two of the reactors exploded on
Tuesday at the Fukushima Daiichi plant after days of frantic efforts to cool
them. Kyodo news agency said the nuclear fuel pool at the No. 4 reactor may be
boiling, suggesting the crisis is far from over at the plant, 150 miles north
of Tokyo.

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 government later said radiation levels around
the complex had plunged.

The plant operator pulled out 750
workers, leaving just 50, and a 30-km no-fly zone was imposed around the
reactors.

“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.”

Concerns center on damage to a part
of the reactor core known as the suppression pool, which helps cool and trap
the majority of cesium, iodine, strontium in its water. The nature of the
damage was unclear, as was its impact on the containment structure, a thick
steel vessel that surrounds the core.

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