Japan expands nuclear evacuation, stops radiated water dumping

By Yoko Kubota and Yoko Nishikawa

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan expanded the evacuation zone around a crippled nuclear plant to avoid exposing residents to high levels of accumulated radiation, as the struggle to contain the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl entered its second month.

The operator of the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex said it had stopped the discharge of low-level radioactive water into the sea that had drawn complaints from neighboring China and South Korea.

Tokyo Electric Power Co, TEPCO, said 10,400 tones of low-level radioactive water, left by the tsunami, had been pumped back into the sea in order to free up storage capacity for highly contaminated water from the reactors.

Monday, shortly after Japan marked one month since a March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear disaster, a huge aftershock shook a wide swathe of eastern Japan, killing two people, and knocking out power to 220,000 households.

The epicenter of Monday’s magnitude 6.6 tremor, which was followed by more than 25 aftershocks, was 68 km (90 miles) east of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex at the center of the crisis.

The government announced earlier that because of accumulated radiation contamination, it would encourage people to leave certain areas beyond its 20 km (12 mile) exclusion zone around the plant. Thousands of people could be affected by the move.

Children, pregnant women, and hospitalized patients should stay out of some areas 20-30 km from the nuclear complex, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters.

“These new evacuation plans are meant to ensure safety against risks of living there for half a year or one year,” he said. There was no need to evacuate immediately, he added.

The move comes amid international concern over radiation spreading from the six damaged reactors at Fukushima, which engineers are still struggling to bring under control after they were wrecked by the 15-meter tsunami on March 11.

TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu visited the area Monday for the first time the disaster. He had all but vanished from public view apart from a brief apology shortly after the crisis began and has spent some of the time since in hospital.

“I would like to deeply apologize again for causing physical and psychological hardships to people of Fukushima prefecture and near the nuclear plant,” said a grim-faced Shimizu.

Dressed in a blue work jacket, he bowed his head for a moment of silence with other TEPCO officials at 2:46 p.m. (0546 GMT), exactly a calendar month after the earthquake hit.

Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato refused to meet him, but the TEPCO boss left a business card at the government office.

RADIOACTIVE WATER

Engineers at the plant north of Tokyo said they were no closer to restoring the plant’s cooling system, which is critical to bring down the temperature of overheated fuel rods and to bringing the six reactors under control.

In a desperate move to cool the highly radioactive fuel rods, TEPCO has pumped water onto reactors, some of which have experienced partial meltdown.

But the strategy has hindered moves to restore the plant’s internal cooling system as engineers have had to focus on how to store 60,000 tones of contaminated water.

Engineers are also pumping nitrogen into reactors to counter a build-up of hydrogen and prevent another explosion sending more radiation into the air, but they say the risk of such a dramatic event has lowered significantly since March 11.

The triple disaster is the worst to hit Japan since World War Two, leaving nearly 28,000 dead or missing and rocking the world’s third-largest economy.

Concern at the government’s struggle to handle the situation is mounting, with Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s ruling party suffering embarrassing losses in local elections on Sunday.

Voters vented their anger at the government’s handling of the nuclear and humanitarian crisis, with Kan’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan losing nearly 70 seats in local election.

There is talk of forming a grand coalition of mainstream parties to tackle the massive task of recovery from the disaster. But the leader of one potential coalition partner said Sunday’s polls made Kan’s party unattractive.

“The people are saying the government has been handling the disaster badly. Joining hands with such a party … is not what the people are hoping for,” New Komeito head Natsuo Yamaguchi told Reuters in an interview.

The unpopular Kan was already under pressure to step down before March 11, but analysts say he is unlikely to be forced out during the crisis, set to drag on for months.

(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Kazunori Takada in Tokyo; Writing by Paul Eckert; Editing by Andrew Marshall)

Japan expands nuclear evacuation, stops radiated water dumping