- - Monday, March 28, 2011

KITAKAMI, Japan | Plutonium found in soil around Japan’s disabled nuclear power plant panicked the public and media Monday, but scientists insisted the trace amounts discovered are harmless to humans.

In Tokyo, the government issued its strongest warnings yet about the broader potential health hazards from the Dai-ichi nuclear reactors about 150 miles northeast of the Japanese capital.

”There is a big risk [to human health] at the moment,” government spokesman Yukio Edano told reporters.

At the oceanside power plant in Fukushima province, emergency crews continued their struggle to cool overheating reactors but were stymied by massive pools of highly radioactive water leaking from the power plant into the soil and the sea.

Sakae Muto, vice president of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), which owns the crippled nuclear plant, said the trace amounts of plutonium are similar to those found in the past in other parts of Japan from airborne particles carried by atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Plutonium found this time is at a similar level seen in soil in a regular environment, and it’s not at the level that is harmful to human health,” he said.

However, the discovery led to breathless news stories. One noted that plutonium “is used in nuclear bombs.”

Emergency crews were more concerned about the contaminated water with radiation levels more than four times the amount the government considers safe. Workers found radioactive water in deep trenches used for pipes and electrical wiring outside of three of the six reactors at the plant.

They face “very delicate work,” trying to pump water into the units to cool overheated fuel rods, while pumping out and safely storing the contaminated water, said a spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

In Futaba, a town of 6,800 residents near the stricken plant, officials expressed dismay in the third week after the March 11 killer earthquake and massive tsunami that wiped out whole cities.

”Daily life doesn’t seem real, and I don’t know what to do,” Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa said. ”It’s like we are on a journey, and the end of our journey must be to return home.”

About 1,200 Futaba residents are living in emergency shelters near Tokyo.

Public opinion surveys show almost two-thirds of citizens disapprove of the government’s handling of the nuclear crisis, and ruling politicians on Monday took a stronger stand against Tepco.

Tepco earlier admitted its error in reporting Sunday that radiation was 10 million times higher than the normal level. Company officials now say the levels nearest the plant might be 100,000 times above normal.

“On one hand, I do think the workers at the site are getting quite tired,” said Mr. Edano, the government spokesman.

“But these radiation tests are being used for making various decisions on safety and therefore these mistakes are absolutely unforgivable.”

Tepco Vice President Sakae Muto promised better readings.

“We will work hard to raise our precision in our work so as not to repeat this again,” he told a news conference.

The chief of the U.N. nuclear agency said Monday he is planning a high-level conference in late June to review safety procedures at all of the world’s nuclear power plants.

“The political level is needed,” said Yukia Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “This is not only for experts or technical people.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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