Japanese officials on Thursday reported the highest levels of radiation yet recorded in the ocean near a crippled nuclear plant.
The announcement raises fears of a still-undetected radiation leak from the plant, which has been spewing various forms of radiation since its cooling systems were knocked out by a massive earthquake and tsunami almost three weeks ago.
Authorities said they will have to consider expanding the 20-kilometer evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant if elevated radiation levels detected in a village 40 kilometers from the plant persist. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters Thursday that the levels — twice the international standard for evacuation — still do not pose an immediate threat to human health.
Operators of the plant reported some progress in pumping highly contaminated water out of the basements and adjacent utility tunnels at three of the plant’s six reactors. The water must be removed before workers can complete repairs to the pumps that run the plant’s vital cooling systems.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Tokyo Thursday afternoon to show solidarity with the Japanese. France, the world’s most nuclear-dependent nation, has already sent experts to assist in work at the plant.
Elsewhere, the confirmed death toll from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami rose above 11,400 with more than 16,500 still missing. Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that authorities have been unable to collect up to 1,000 radiation-contaminated bodies from inside the evacuation zone.
Officials at Japan’s nuclear safety agency said radiation in the latest sampling from the ocean near the Fukushima plant’s discharge pipes was at 4,385 times the legal limit. That compares to the previous high of 3,355 times the legal limit, registered a day earlier.
Officials said Wednesday they had not determined where the radiation is coming from. However officials say their highest priority is to prevent radiation inside the reactors’ cores from leaking into the ground water system, which would allow it to become widely distributed through the ground and into the ocean.
At his news conference Thursday, Edano responded to the previous day’s report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which said it had found radiation at levels twice the recommended standard for evacuation in a single sample at the village of IItate far outside the evacuation zone.
Edano said the radiation level still was not considered threatening unless it persists over a period of time. In that case, he said, the government will have no choice but to consider a wider evacuation. He said monitoring will be intensified in the meantime.
About 70,000 people have already been evacuated from the 20-mile radius around the plant. Expanding the zone to 30 kilometers would require moving another 136,000, adding to pressures on a government that already has almost 200,000 earthquake victims living in temporary shelters.
A nuclear agency spokesman said most of the residents of IItate have already left, but about 100 refuse to leave their homes.