China concerned at Japan’s prolonged nuclear crisis

By Yoko Kubota and Yoko Nishikawa

TOKYO (Reuters) – China said on Friday it was concerned at Japan pumping radioactive water into the sea from its crippled nuclear power plant, reflecting growing international unease at the month-long crisis triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami.

China will “closely” monitor Japan’s actions to regain control of the plant, the foreign ministry said, demanding Tokyo provide swift and accurate information on the crisis which began on March 11 when a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami struck.

The comments came as a Chinese quality watchdog said it had detected 10 cases of ships, aircraft or cargo arriving from Japan with higher than normal levels of radiation since mid-March.

While Japan struggles to regain control of the nuclear plant in the worst crisis since Chernobyl, it also faced calls to revive its economy, rocked by the triple disaster, to prevent a knock-on impact on the global economy.

G20 finance leaders will ask Tokyo for a plan to resuscitate its economy as they see the fallout from the earthquake a risk to global growth, Takatoshi Kato, a former IMF deputy managing director, told Reuters in an interview on Friday.

The tsunami left 28,000 people dead or missing, damaged six nuclear reactors north of Tokyo and left Japan’s northeast coast a splintered wreck. The world’s third largest economy is now in a “severe condition,” the Japanese government said on Friday.

A major 7.1 aftershock on Thursday night rocked Japan’s east coast killing three people, injuring 141 others, leaving four million homes without power and prompting a brief evacuation of workers from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) (9501.T: Quote, Profile, Research) said there had been no damage to its plant, which until two days ago was leaking highly radioactive water into the sea. But engineers are pumping low-level radioactive seawater, used to cool overheated fuel rods, back into the sea due to a lack of storage capacity.

“As Japan’s neighbor, we naturally express our concern about this,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement.

“We ask that Japan reports the relevant information to the Chinese side in a swift, comprehensive and accurate way.”

South Korea also weighed in on Thursday, accusing Japan of incompetence for failing to notify its neighbor it would pump radioactive water into the sea.

“They should have given notice but didn’t, perhaps because they just didn’t get around to think of it, but it is a question of their incompetence,” Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik said in answer to a question in parliament.

ECONOMY REELING

Several countries have banned or restricted food imports from Japan over radiation fears and some South Korean schools have closed fearing toxic rain.

Compounding Tokyo’s problems, Japan’s economy is reeling from the worst disaster since World War Two and the disruption to Japanese supply chains is reverberating around the world,

Power blackouts and restrictions, factory shutdowns, and a sharp drop in tourists have hit the world’s most indebted nation, which is facing a damages bill as high as $300 billion, making it by far the world’s costliest natural disaster.

Many economists expect Japan to slip into recession this year, and the central bank warned on Friday power shortages and supply disruptions will leave the economy weak for some time.

The Cabinet Office’s assessment was equally bleak after releasing a survey reflecting the first glimpse of damage to business and consumer sentiment.

“Japan’s economy is suddenly in a severe condition due to the effects of the earthquake,” it said after releasing a monthly survey of hotel workers, restaurant staff and taxi drivers that showed a record fall in confidence to levels last seen during the depths of the global financial crisis.

In an obvious sign of the downturn; taxis park in long lines in central Tokyo each night, their drivers staying warm by idling the motor as they wait forlornly for a fare.

Some ministers at Friday’s cabinet meeting called for an end to a campaign of “jishuku” (self restraint) by ordinary people that was adopted immediately after March 11 to cut fuel or electricity use and discourage stockpiling of necessities.

The Tokyo area and regions further north make up half of Japan’s economy, Nomura research shows. Thursday’s aftershock forced two companies, including electronics giant Sony Corp (6758.T: Quote, Profile, Research), to stop production due to power cuts.

On a brighter note, Japan’s top automakers Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T: Quote, Profile, Research) and Nissan Motor Co (7201.T: Quote, Profile, Research) plan to resume production at all domestic factories in stages starting on Monday, but output levels will be at half of original plans.

NO CHANGE IN RADIATION

Japanese nerves were further rattled on Friday when the overnight aftershock saw partial power lost at the Onagawa nuclear plant, which is in cold-shut down, and a brief water leak from spent fuel rod pools.

But Japan’s nuclear safety agency said it had not detected any change in radiation levels.

The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog sounded an encouraging note when one of its officials said there were signs of progress in stabilizing the Fukushima plant, though the situation remained very serious.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had not detected any change in radiation levels following Thursday night’s quake.

“The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains very serious … (but) there are early signs of recovery in some functions such as electrical power and instrumentation,”

the IAEA’s head of nuclear safety, Denis Flory, said.

The agency said radiation in the region around the plant, as measured by gamma dose rates, had peaked in the early days of the crisis, and aside from a rise on March 22, had since fallen to “a level very close to background.”

Utility TEPCO said it was continuing to inject nitrogen into one of its Fukushima reactors to prevent a repeat of last month’s hydrogen explosions.

Officials say it could take months to bring the reactors under control and years to clear up the toxic mess left behind.

The government has set up a 20-km (12-mile) exclusion zone around the plant, banned fishing along much of the northeast coast and set up evacuation centers for the tens of thousands forced to leave their homes following the crisis.

China’s health ministry said this week traces of radioactivity had been found in spinach in three provinces and the state news agency Xinhua reported trace levels of radioactivity detected in 22 provinces.

(Additional reporting by Mayumi Negishi, Chisa Fujioka, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Leika Kihara and Chang-Ran Kim in Tokyo, Ben Blanchard and Sui-lee Wee in Beijing, Jack Kim in Seoul; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

China concerned at Japan’s prolonged nuclear crisis