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Radiation leak at Japan nuke plant, but reactor 'intact'

12 march 2011, 21:15
Radiation leaked from a quake-hit Japanese nuclear plant Saturday, but the government moved to calm fears of meltdown and said a huge explosion had not ruptured the container surrounding the reactor, AFP reports.

An evacuation order for tens of thousands of residents was expanded to 20 kilometers (12 miles) around the Fukushima plant, where authorities scrambled to control rising temperatures and pressure inside several reactors.

The fear was that evaporating cooling liquid would expose the fuel rods to air, triggering a nuclear meltdown and major radiation leak.

Japan had on Friday declared an atomic emergency amid growing international concern over its reactors after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, the biggest in Japan's history, unleashed tsunamis that destroyed everything in their path.

The US Air Force, which has many bases in Japan, on Friday delivered coolant to a nuclear plant there, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that day, without specifying which plant.

The operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) pumped water into the Fukushima No. 1 plant and released steam to depressurize the hut containers, an action that experts say will release a certain amount of radioactive vapor.

Tepco said that, at its highest level, the hourly radiation inside the plant reached 1,015 micro sievert before the blast -- equivalent to the permissible exposure for people over one year.

In the afternoon a huge explosion ripped through the plant, and a massive plume of white smoke billowed into the sky, raising fears the steel reactor had been destroyed.

But Tepco later said it was the structure encasing the reactor that had collapsed, saying that this took place at the time of an earthquake aftershock, and that the steel reactor inside it was not ruptured.

It said that, after the explosion, the radiation levels had dropped sharply, to about 64 micro sievert by the evening.

Top government spokesman Yukio Edano said containment activities would now focus on "dousing the container with sea water".

Premier Naoto Kan, speaking at the same press conference, urged residents to stay calm and vowed the government would "do our best not to have even a single person suffer from health problems".

TV channels earlier warned nearby residents going outside to avoid exposing their skin and to cover their faces with masks or wet towels.

Tepco said four of its workers had been injured in the blast at the plant 250 km northeast of Tokyo, but that the injuries were not life-threatening.

Japan records 20 percent of the world's major earthquakes. It generates about 30 percent of its power from about 50 nuclear plants.

By Miwa Suzuki

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