Reactor fire forces 140,000 to stay home

A baby being screened for radiation in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima prefecture, yesterday. Panic swept
through Tokyo after a rise in radiation levels around an earthquake-hit nuclear plant north of the city, causing many to flee the capital and stock up on food and supplies. — Reuters picture
Dangerous levels of radiation leaking from a crippled nuclear plant forced Japan to order 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors yesterday after an explosion and a fire dramatically escalated the four-day-old crisis spawned by a deadly tsunami.In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said radiation had spread from four reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture, one of the hardesthit in Friday’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that has killed more than 10,000 people, plunged millions into misery and pummelled the world’s third-largest economy.

Though Kan and other officials urged calm, yesterday’s developments fuelled a growing panic in Japan and around the world amid widespread uncertainty over what would happen next.

In the worst-case scenario, the reactor’s core would completely melt down, a disaster that would spew large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

Tokyo reported slightly elevated radiation levels, but officials said the increase was too small to threaten the 39 million people in and around the capital, about 270km away. Closer to the stricken nuclear complex, the streets in this coastal city were empty as the few residents who remained heeded the government’s warning to stay indoors.

Officials just south of Fukushima reported up to 100 times the normal levels of radiation yesterday morning, Kyodo News agency reported. While those figures are worrying if there is prolonged exposure, they are far from fatal.

Kan and other officials warned there is danger of more leaks and told people living within 30km of the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex to stay indoors to avoid exposure that could make people sick.

“Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors.

Please close windows and make your homes airtight,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told residents in the danger zone.

“These are figures that potentially affect health. There is no mistake about that,” he said.

Weather forecasts for Fukushima were for snow and wind from the northeast yesterday evening, blowing southwest towards Tokyo, then shifting and blowing west out to sea. That’s important because it shows which direction a possible nuclear cloud might blow.

The nuclear crisis is the worst Japan has faced since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War 2. It is also the first time that such a grave nuclear threat has been raised in the world since a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine exploded in 1986.

Some 70,000 people had already been evacuated from a 20km radius from the Dai-ichi complex. About 140,000 remain in the new warning zone.

Workers were desperately trying to stabilise three reactors at the power plant that exploded in the wake of Friday’s quake and tsunami, after losing their ability to cool down and releasing some radiation. Since the quake, engineers have been injecting seawater into the reactors as a last-ditch coolant.

A fourth reactor that had been shut down before the quake caught fire and more radiation was released, Edano said.

The fire was put out. Even though the fourth reactor was shut down, the fire there was believed to be the source of the elevated radiation.

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