Pressure grew yesterday for Japan to expand an evacuation zone around its stricken nuclear power plant, where radiation hit 4,000 times legal limits in nearby seawaters and hindered the battle to contain the atomic crisis.
The quake and tsunami that battered the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant have also left more than 27,500 people dead or missing and are taking a heavy toll on the world’s third-biggest economy.
First data on the impact of the March 11 disasters showed manufacturing slumped the most on record this month as factories shut and supply chains were disrupted, especially in the car and technology sectors for which Japan is renowned.
Damage could top US$300 billion, while a Wall Street bank said nuclear-related compensation claims might be more than US$130 billion.
At least Japan was receiving some foreign help at its biggest time of need since World War II — French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew into Tokyo in the first such show of solidarity by a foreign leader since the crisis.
On arrival, he called for a May meeting of nuclear power watchdogs from G20 nations to set new global industry standards.
Both the UN nuclear watchdog and Japan’s own nuclear safety agency have advised Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s government to consider widening the 20km zone round the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant on the northeast Pacific coast.
High radiation was detected at twice that distance away.
Government officials are pleading for Japanese and the world to avoid overreaction to what they say are still low-risk levels of radiation away from the plant. However. opposition politicians have lambasted Kan for sticking with the original exclusion area.
More than 70,000 people have been evacuated from the 20km ring. Another 136,000 who live in a 10km band beyond that have been encouraged to leave or to stay indoors.
“We have advised [Japan] to carefully assess the situation,” International Atomic Energy Agency deputy director general Denis Flory said.
The UN body said radiation at Iitate village, 40km from the plant, exceeded a criterion for evacuation.
Japanese chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the government was reviewing the issue daily, but “at this moment, no decision to expand the evacuation area has been made.”
Consistently high levels of radiation found in the sea near the complex could mean radiation is leaking out continuously, Japan’s nuclear watchdog said. The source is still unknown, adding to the headaches for engineers on the site.
Radioactive iodine in seawater near drains running from the plant was 4,385 times more than the legal limit, the highest recorded so far during the crisis.
In a sign of the extraordinary situation facing Japan, one newborn baby’s first medical appointment was not with a pediatrician but a Geiger counter.
“I am so scared about radiation,” Misato Nagashima said as she took her baby Rio, born four days after the earthquake and disaster, for a screening at a city in Fukushima prefecture.
Experts say the battle to control the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors could take weeks, if not months, followed by a cleanup operation that may drag on for years.
“It is a major issue now how the nuclear crisis develops, and stock market players are also closely watching,” said Akeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.