Japan radiation fears grow

Anxiety over Japan's damaged nuclear plant increases as top U.S. nuclear regulator calls situation worse than reported by Japanese government and says "extremely high" radiation levels could hamper containment efforts.

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Anxiety over Japan's damaged nuclear plant increased today as the United States' top nuclear regulator told Congress the situation was worse than reported by the Japanese government and that "extremely high" radiation levels could hamper containment efforts.

Evacuees at a center near Fukushima.
Evacuees at a center near Fukushima. Associated Press video; screenshot by Edward Moyer/CNET

The American Embassy in Tokyo, meanwhile, recommended evacuation to U.S. citizens within 50 miles of the plant--an area much larger than the approximately 12-mile radius established by the Japanese. Still, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission maintained that there was little cause for worry about radioactive drift on the part of residents of Hawaii or the West Coast of the U.S.

According to various reports, Gregory Jaczko (pronounced YAZZ-koe), head of the NRC, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee today that a pool storing spent nuclear fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station was now empty, or nearly so, leaving the fuel rods within to potentially catch fire and spew their radiation directly into the air.

The New York Times said a representative of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power contradicted the claim, saying "there has not been any particular problem," but the paper added that Jaczko stood by his assertion and that he said regulatory commission officials had confirmed it, as had Tokyo Electric and other officials in Japan.

Jaczko also said a second pool might be nearing the same condition, the Times said.

If his information is accurate and spent fuel is not submerged and thus not properly cooled, the situation could--at its worst--mean that so much radiation would be released that containment efforts would have to be abandoned altogether, the Times reported. That, in turn, could lead to complete meltdown and the spread of far more radioactivity. A helicopter was reportedly dumping water on the Fukushima facility on Thursday morning, local time, in an effort to address the crisis.

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Crisis in Japan

The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that U.S. Ambassador John Roos said he thought Tokyo was still safe from radiation but that after initially following the guidance of the Japanese government, he issued a statement citing NRC recommendations.

"Consistent with the NRC guidelines that apply to such a situation in the United States, we are recommending, as a precaution, that American citizens who live within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant evacuate the area or take shelter indoors if safe evacuation is not practical," Roos said in the statement.

The Post said the difference in the size of the restricted areas put forth by the U.S. and Japanese governments seemed to arise from differing standards on radiation exposure, rather than different views on how much radiation has escaped.

The Times, however, reported that American officials have said Japan's leadership has appeared to be overwhelmed and uncommunicative about the disaster and that the government might not be getting clear information from the nuclear plant's operator.

In guidelines issued today, the NRC also provided assurances about the drift of the plume from the Fukushima plant.

"In response to nuclear emergencies, the NRC works with other U.S. agencies to monitor radioactive releases and predict their path," the commission said. "All the available information continues to indicate Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories, and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity."

The Times said Jaczko was asked during a White House briefing on Monday if a meltdown of one of the reactor cores at Fukushima would increase the chance of harmful radiation reaching Hawaii or the West Coast.

"I don't want to speculate on various scenarios," Jaczko reportedly said. "But based on the design and the distances involved, it is very unlikely that there would be any harmful impacts."

The Times also reported that, remembering Chernobyl, European nations were issuing statements. Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection reportedly called any threat from the plume negligible and said iodine pills were unnecessary.

Late Wednesday, the Post reported that the U.S. had offered to evacuate family members of State Department and Pentagon officials out of northern Japan, including Tokyo, but that the Tokyo embassy would remain open. The State Department is also offering U.S. citizens who wish to leave Japan travel to safe locations in Asia, and the British embassy in Tokyo is chartering flights from Tokyo to Hong Kong to supplement available commercial flights for those wishing to leave.

The NRC said the public can sign up for its latest news releases here, or for e-mail notifications about releases here.