Radiation detected in spinach, milk in Japan

11:18, March 20, 2011      

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Japaense health officials said Saturday that radiation levels in spinach and milk from farms near the tsunami-scarred Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant exceed government safety limits.

The Science and Technology Ministry said also that miniscule amounts of radioactive iodine have been detected in the tap water in Tokyo and the prefectures neighboring Fukushima in the first sign that contamination from the stricken nuclear complex had seeped into the food chain.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, meanwhile, insisted the contaminated foods "pose no immediate health risk."

After the announcements, Japanese officials immediately tried to calm an already-jittery public, saying the amounts detected were so small that people would have to consume unimaginable amounts to endanger their health.

Edano said someone drinking the tainted milk for one year would consume as much radiation as in a CT scan; for the spinach, it would be one-fifth of a CT scan. A CT scan is a compressed series of X-rays used for medical tests.

Japan has been grappling with a cascade of disasters unleashed by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11. The quake spawned a tsunami that ravaged Japan's northeastern coast, killing more than 7,300 people and knocking out cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, causing the complex to leak radiation.

Nearly 11,000 people are still missing, and more than 452,000 are living in shelters.

Meanwhile, Japan's Self-Defense Force and fire-fighting personnel continued with cooling operations at the nuclear plant. They resumed shooting water over the No. 3 reactor Saturday afternoon in an attempt to cool down the reactor and the overheating spent fuel pools.

A spokesperson for the Tokyo Electric Power Co., known locally as TEPCO, owner of the damaged Daiichi facility, said a total of 1,260 tons of water will be discharged over the next seven hours.

An unmanned vehicle with a 22-meter high platform was used to avoid excessive human exposure to radiation near the reactor.

The Tokyo Fire Department's special "hyper rescue team" also joined efforts and a total of 60 tons of water was discharged in 20 minutes in the first phase of the operation on Saturday morning.

The cooling operation was suspended later as TEPCO workers tried to reconnect electricity to the plant with outside power lines.

TEPCO said Saturday that reconnection of the No. 2 reactor was expected to be completed during the day, but it may take some time before cooling devices can be reactivated. That's because a lot of damage may have been caused to the electrical systems when the tsunami hit the plant following Friday's 9.0-magnitude quake.

The utility said that at the time of the quake, the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 reactors at the Daiichi facility were the only ones operating and were shut down automatically immediately after the quake.

But due to an immediate failure of the cooling functions, some of the cores could have already been partially melted.

The buildings housing the No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4 reactors have been severely damaged, TEPCO said, and fuel pools in the reactors have been left uncovered.

In addition, the No. 2 reactor's containment vessel suffered damage at its pressure-suppression chamber, TEPCO said.

TEPCO's office in Fukushima said that following the initial cooling attempts, radiation levels fell slightly 500 meters northwest of the No. 3 reactor.

The government has set an exclusion zone covering areas within a 20-km radius of the plant and has urged people within 20 to 30- km to stay indoors.

The Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency raised the severity level of the crisis-hit reactors to 5 from 4 on an international scale Friday, the same level as the Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979.

Meanwhile, most resident in Fukushima prefecture remained calm.

Many Fukishima residents have departed for other places or stay in shelters. Young people are wearing masks to protect themselves, but many older people come out with no protective measures. They told Xinhua they were not scared and believe that with the help from the international community, the government could handle the crisis.

One Fukushima resident said their homes have been damaged in the quake and their lives have been turned upside-down, but if the situation deteriorates, the city would become synonymous with nuclear leakage, and that is not just a nightmare haunting the more than 300,000 Fukushima residents.

Local media reported Saturday that up to 67 people have been exposed to radiation in Fukushima prefecture following leaks of radioactive substances from the troubled nuclear plant, but the dose of radiation was not high enough to pose any health threat.

Prefectural authorities detected radioactive substances on their shoes and clothes after having conducted radiation checks on 42,440 people at 13 locations in the prefecture, said the reports.

The board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will convene a meeting at its headquarters in Vienna on Monday to brief U.N. member states on the nuclear emergency in Japan, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Friday.

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