TOKYO – New readings show radiation levels continue to rise in the ocean outside a leaking nuclear plant in Japan’s northeast, officials said today as they debated whether to broaden the evacuation zone around the tsunami-damaged facility.
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said it was looking into a report from the U.N. atomic agency about high levels of radiation in the village of Iitate, 25 miles from the plant in Fukushima prefecture.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said the level in one spot tested in Iitate was twice its suggested threshold for evacuation.
NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said officials were checking radiation levels in the village, which lies outside even a voluntary evacuation area 19 miles from the plant. He said most residents have left, but about 100 have chosen to stay.
“We take it seriously,” he said today. “We may consider asking these people to evacuate. But we need more time to study the situation.” People in a 12-mile radius around the plant have already been ordered to leave their homes.
Experts say the spike does not pose an immediate danger to human health, but evacuation recommendations tend to be conservative to prevent long-term exposure to any elevation in radiation levels.
Operations continued today to cool down the dangerously overheated Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which has leaked radiation after being damaged in the March 11 quake and tsunami.
The mission to stabilize the plant, 140 miles northeast of Tokyo, has become more complicated since the discovery a week ago that radioactive water is pooling inside, restricting the areas in which crews can work.
It also puts emergency crews in the uncomfortable position of having to pump in more water to continue cooling the reactor while simultaneously pumping out contaminated water.
TEPCO, which owns the Fukushima plant, has come under growing criticism for its handling of the nuclear crisis. The nuclear safety agency ordered plant operators nationwide on Wednesday to review their emergency procedures. The agency told utilities they must have on hand mobile backup generators and fire engines, which have been used at Fukushima to cool the reactors.
French nuclear officials who are experts of the removal of such radiation have recently arrived to help out, and the IAEA is also sending experts. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was arriving in Tokyo today for talks with Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan. His nation currently holds the presidency of the Group of 20 leading world economies.
Contamination from the plant has been seeping into the sea, posing no threat to human health because fishing and swimming aren’t allowed in the vicinity but sparking concern about the continued leaks, Nishiyama said.