Injured Japan atom workers to be released soon: IAEA

VIENNA (Reuters) – Two workers hospitalized by radiation from Japan’s damaged nuclear plant may be discharged soon, the U.N. atomic agency said, although the exact source of the contaminated water which injured them is a mystery.

The men, battling to cool one of the most critical reactors at the plant Thursday, and a colleague were exposed to radiation levels 10,000 times higher than expected, raising concern of a leak from the core’s container.

“According to the data we got from (Japan) they will be most likely discharged Monday. From my medical perspective if they got something serious they wouldn’t be discharged Monday,” Rethy Chem, human health director at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told a news conference Friday.

He said it was also an exaggeration to describe the injuries the men sustained on their feet as burns, although it was clear they had been contaminated.

The subcontractors, who had been working in a turbine hall, are believed to have ignored the alarms on their radiation monitoring equipment.

“The conditions within the place they were working changed,” IAEA official Elena Buglova said. “The dose rates before were lower … (and they) assumed it was a false alarm.”

The reactor, No. 3 of six, is the only one to use plutonium in its fuel mix which is more toxic than the others which use uranium only. Japan has called for an investigation into why such high levels of radiation suddenly appeared.

More than 700 engineers have been toiling in shifts to stabilize the plant damaged by an earthquake and tsunami.

“There has not been much change at the Fukushima Daiichi plant over the past 24 hours. Some positive trends are continuing but there remain areas of uncertainty that are of serious concern,” senior IAEA official Graham Andrew said.

Japanese nuclear officials suggested there may be damage to the unit’s pressure vessel but later played this down.

Asked how there could be radiation coming from the plant if there was no damage to the reactor vessel, Andrew said it could be coming from steam from the overheating plant.

“There are other mechanisms even if the vessels are intact that will provide a route outside of containment,” he said, adding that IAEA officials suspect there could be some sort of damage although Japan has not provided such information yet.

He said the radiation appears to be coming from the highly radioactive fuel core rather than from pools holding spent fuel at the plant which have also given rise for concern.

(Reporting by Michael Shields and Sylvia Westall)

Injured Japan atom workers to be released soon: IAEA