- - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Recent radiation readings outside the exclusion zone around Japan’s nuclear disaster show radiation substantially higher than levels at which the U.N.’s nuclear agency would recommend evacuations, agency officials said Wednesday.

The comments could add to the debate over how far people need to stay away from Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, which was crippled in the country’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Meanwhile, fears about contaminated seafood spread Wednesday despite reassurances that radiation in the waters off Japan’s troubled atomic plant pose no health risk.

While experts say radioactive particles are unlikely to build up significantly in fish, the seafood concerns in the country that gave the world sushi are yet another blemish for Brand Japan.

It already has been hit by contamination of milk, vegetables and water since the quake and tsunami disabled the Fukushima power plant, plus shortages of auto and tech parts because of power interruptions at factories.

Elena Buglova, an official from the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said the radiation reading was 2 megabecquerels per square meter at the village of Iitate, adding that “as a ratio, it was about two times higher” than levels at which the agency recommends evacuations.

Iitate is about 25 miles from the Fukushima complex, where emergency crews are battling to keep radioactivity from spreading.

Japanese officials have told residents to evacuate within a 12-mile zone and to stay indoors within 18 miles of the damaged complex, but U.S. officials have recommended people stay at least 50  miles away.

The officials emphasized that the readings at Iitate were sporadic and only at one measuring point. They did not say exactly when the readings were taken but mentioned them along with radiation measurements of iodine 131 and cesium 137 in soil samples from March 18 to March 26.

Denis Flory, a senior IAEA official, demurred when asked if the agency was recommending that the village be cleared of residents, but he said it had advised Japanese authorities to “carefully assess the situation.”

At Fukushima complex Wednesday, setbacks mounted, as the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), announced that its president was hospitalized.

Masataka Shimizu has not been seen since a news conference two days after the March 11 quake that spawned the destructive tsunami. His absence fueled speculation that he had suffered a breakdown.

Spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said Mr. Shimizu, 66, was admitted to a Tokyo hospital Tuesday after suffering dizziness and high blood pressure.

The problems at the nuclear plant have taken center stage, but the tsunami also created another disaster: Hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes after the wave drove miles inland, decimating whole towns. The official death toll stood at 11,362 late Wednesday, with the final toll likely surpassing 18,000.

• From combined dispatches

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