WRAPUP 10-Japan finds plutonium in soil at stricken nuclear plant

* Japan’s nuclear safety agency worried about reactor breach

* Radiation increases, bad news piles up from site

* PM Kan lambasted in parliament over disaster

* French president to visit this week

(Adds details)

By Chizu Nomiyama and Kazunori Takada

TOKYO, March 29 (Reuters) – Plutonium found in soil at the
Fukushima nuclear complex heightened alarm on Tuesday over
Japan’s battle to contain the world’s worst atomic crisis in 25
years, as pressure mounted on the prime minister to widen an
evacuation zone around the plant.

Some opposition lawmakers blasted Naoto Kan in parliament
for his handling of the disaster and for not widening the
exclusion zone. Kan said he was seeking advice on such a step,
which would force 130,000 people to move in addition to 70,000
already displaced.

The drama at the six-reactor facility has compounded Japan’s
agony after an earthquake and tsunami on March 11 left more than
28,000 people dead or missing in the devastated northeast.

In a gesture of support, France said it had sent two nuclear
experts to Japan to help contain the accident and French
President Nicolas Sarkozy will visit on Thursday for a meeting
with Kan.

France is the world’s most nuclear-dependent country,
producing 75 percent of its power needs from 58 nuclear
reactors, and selling state-owned Areva’s reactors around the
world. Sarkozy will be the first foreign leader to visit since
the earthquake.

In the latest blow to hopes authorities were gradually
getting the plant under control, operator Tokyo Electric Power
Co said plutonium was found at low-risk levels in soil
samples at the facility.

A by-product of atomic reactions and also used in nuclear
bombs, plutonium is highly carcinogenic and one of the most
dangerous substances on the planet, experts say.

They believe some of the plutonium may have come from spent
fuel rods at Fukushima or damage to reactor No. 3, the only one
to use plutonium in its fuel mix.

Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said while the
plutonium levels were not harmful to human health, the discovery
could mean the reactor’s containment mechanism had been
breached.

“Plutonium is a substance that’s emitted when the
temperature is high, and it’s also heavy and so does not leak
out easily,” agency deputy director Hidehiko Nishiyama told a
news conference.

“So if plutonium has emerged from the reactor, that tells us
something about the damage to the fuel. And if it has breached
the original containment system, it underlines the gravity and
seriousness of this accident.”

Sakae Muto, a Tokyo Electric vice-president, said the traces
of plutonium-238, 239 and 240 were in keeping with levels found
in Japan in the past due to particles in the atmosphere from
nuclear testing abroad.

“I apologise for making people worried,” Muto said.

With towns on the northeast coast reduced to apocalyptic
landscapes of mud and debris following the quake and tsunami,
more than a quarter of a million people are homeless. The event
may be the world’s costliest natural disaster, with estimates of
damage topping $300 billion.

PARTIAL MELTDOWN

Workers at Fukushima may have to struggle for weeks or
months under extremely dangerous conditions to re-start cooling
systems vital to control the reactors and avert total meltdown.

On Monday, highly contaminated water was found in concrete
tunnels extending beyond one reactor, while at the weekend
radiation hit 100,000 times over normal in water inside another.

That poses a major dilemma for Tokyo Electric, which wants
to douse the reactors to cool them, but not worsen the spread of
radiation.

Japan’s nuclear safety agency said fuel rods in
the plant’s reactors 1, 2 and 3 were damaged and there was a
high possibility of some leakage from their containment vessels.

The crisis, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in
1986, has contaminated vegetables and milk from the area, as
well as the surrounding sea. U.S. experts said groundwater,
reservoirs and the sea all faced “significant contamination”.

A Tokyo Electric official told a briefing he could not rule
out the possibility that radioactive water could still be
entering the sea, though there was no continuous flow.

Tokyo Electric has sought help from French
companies including Electricite de France SA and Areva
SA .

French Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet
said on Tuesday that experts from Areva and nuclear research
body CEA had been sent to Japan “to share our experience on
pumping and the treatment of radioactive water”.

As well as seeking help from France, Japan is also
consulting the United States.

The government has declined to outline any specific plan for
its nuclear energy policy but said renewable energy would play
an important role in future.

EVACUATION ZONE DILEMMA

Experts have said the lack of information and some
inconsistent data made it hard to understand what was happening
at Fukushima, which appears to have moved from a core-meltdown
phase to one in which management of released radioactivity is
paramount.

Another pressing concern has been the well-being of people
living near the plant. More than 70,000 people have been
evacuated from within 20 km (12 miles) of the facility.

But opposition MP Yosuke Isozaki blasted Kan for not
ordering people living between 20 km and 30 km (12-19 miles)
from the plant to also leave.

“Is there anything as irresponsible as this?” Isozaki asked.

The 130,000 people living inside the wider zone have been
encouraged — but not ordered — to leave.

Environmental group Greenpeace has urged an extension of the
20-km evacuation zone while the United States has recommended
its citizens who live within 80 km (50 miles) of the plant to
leave or shelter indoors.

Kan, leading Japan during its worst crisis since World War
Two, was already deeply unpopular and under pressure to resign
when the crisis began.

He repeatedly defended his decision to fly over the stricken
nuclear site a day after the quake, saying it had been important
to see it for himself. His top spokesman on Monday denied the
visit had delayed operations to cool the reactors, as some media
had reported.

The crisis has also put enormous pressure on Tokyo Electric,
criticised for safety lapses and a slow disaster response. Its
boss, Masataka Shimizu, has barely been seen.

The government might nationalise Tokyo Electric to deal with
the crisis, National Strategy Minister Koichiro Gemba said. Its
shares have fallen almost 75 percent since the quake including a
19 percent tumble on Tuesday to a 47-year low.

Beyond the evacuation zone, traces of radiation have been
found in tap water in Tokyo and as far away as Iceland.

Japanese officials and international experts have generally
said the levels away from the plant were not dangerous for human
beings, who in any case face higher radiation doses on a daily
basis from natural sources, X-rays or flying.

(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg, Mayumi Negishi, Yoko
Nishikawa, leika Kihara and Phil Smith in Tokyo, Timothy Gardner
in Washington, Sylvia Westall in Vienna, David Sheppard in New
York, Eileen O’Grady in Houston, Alister Doyle in Oslo, Deborah
Zabarenko in Washington; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by
Dean Yates and Jeremy Laurence)

WRAPUP 10-Japan finds plutonium in soil at stricken nuclear plant