Jumaat, 25 Mac 2011

The Malaysian Insider :: World

The Malaysian Insider :: World

High radiation levels at Japanese plant raise new worry

Posted: 25 Mar 2011 07:11 PM PDT

Nine-month-old baby Tsubasa Nishi, from Minamisoma in Fukushima, undergoes a screening test as he sleeps on the back of his 27-year-old mother Azusa at a health centre in Yonezawa, 98 km from the Fukushima nuclear plant, March 25, 2011. — Reuters pic

TOKYO, March 26 — Highly radioactive water has been found at a second reactor at the crippled nuclear power station in Japan, the plant's operator said, as fears of contamination escalated two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami battered the complex.

Underscoring growing international concern about nuclear power raised by the accident in northeast Japan, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that it was time to reassess the international nuclear safety regime.

Earlier, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, making his first public statement on the crisis in a week, said the situation at the Fukushima nuclear complex, 240km north of Tokyo, was "nowhere near" being resolved.

"We are making efforts to prevent it from getting worse, but I feel we cannot become complacent," Kan told reporters. "We must continue to be on our guard."

The comments reflected a spike of unease in Japan after several days of slow but steady progress in containing the nuclear accident, triggered by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

The 9.0-magnitude quake and giant waves that it triggered left more than 10,000 people dead and 17,500 missing.

Despite such a shocking toll, much attention since the disaster has been on the possibility of a catastrophic meltdown at Fukushima.

Two of the plant's six reactors are now seen as safe but the other four are volatile, occasionally emitting steam and smoke.

More than 700 engineers have been working in shifts to stabilise the plant, and work has been advancing to restart water pumps to cool their fuel rods.

But fresh fears were raised on Thursday when three workers trying to cool the most critical reactor were exposed to radiation levels 10,000 times higher than normally found in a reactor. They were hospitalised after walking in contaminated water though they are expected to be discharged soon.

The high level of contamination raised the possibility of a leak of radioactive material through a crack in the core's container, which would mean a serious reversal following slow progress in getting the plant under control.

The reactor, the No. 3 unit, is the only one to use plutonium in its fuel mix, which is more toxic than the uranium used in the other reactors.

The plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), and the state nuclear safety agency said late yesterday that similarly contaminated water had been found at the turbine building of the No. 1 reactor.

"We do not know the cause," a Tepco official told a news conference. The new finding had delayed work again, another official said.

Senior nuclear safety agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama said the high radiation meant there could be damage to the reactor, but he later said it could be from venting operations or water leakage from pipes or valves.

"There is no data suggesting a crack," he said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said yesterday that there had not been much change in the crisis over the previous 24 hours.

"Some positive trends are continuing but there remain areas of uncertainty that are of serious concern," agency official Graham Andrew said in Vienna, adding the high radiation could be coming from steam.

Seventeen workers had received elevated levels of radiation since the operation began, the agency said.

'Lessons learned'

Authorities have been using sea water to cool the reactors but it is corrosive and leaves salt deposits that constrict the amount of water that can cool fuel rods.

Tepco said it had started injecting fresh water into the pressure vessels of reactors No. 1 and No. 3, and expected to start injecting fresh water into No. 2 soon.

At UN headquarters in New York, Ban called a high-level meeting to "take stock of the international response to the latest developments" in Japan. He said he was encouraging countries "to consider lessons learned" and to strengthen nuclear safety.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government has prodded tens of thousands of people living in a 20-30km zone beyond the stricken complex to leave, but insisted it was not widening a 20km evacuation zone.

"Given how prolonged the situation has become, we think it would be desirable for people to voluntarily evacuate," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

Authorities have already cleared about 70,000 people from a 20km zone around the plant.

Edano has maintained there was no need to expand the evacuation zone, but an official at the Science Ministry confirmed that daily radiation levels in an area 30km northwest of the plant had exceeded the annual limit.

Vegetable and milk shipments from near the stricken plant have been stopped, and Tokyo's 13 million residents were told this week not to give tap water to babies after contamination from rain put radiation at twice the safety level.

It dropped back to safe levels the next day, and the city governor cheerily drank tap water in front of cameras.

Experts say radiation from the plant is still generally below levels of exposure from flights or medical x-rays.

Nevertheless, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, the United States and Hong Kong are restricting food and milk imports from the zone. Other nations are screening Japanese food, and German shipping lines are simply avoiding the country.

In Japan's north, more than a quarter of a million people are in shelters. Exhausted rescuers are still sifting through the wreckage of towns and villages, retrieving bodies.

Amid the suffering, though, there was a sense the corner was being turned. Aid is flowing and phone, electricity, postal and bank services have resumed, though they can still be patchy.

Owners of small businesses have begun cleaning up.

"Everybody on this block has the firm belief that they are going to bring this thing back again," said Maro Kariya in the town of Kamaishi, as he cleared debris from a family coffee shop.

The estimated US$300 billion (RM907.6 billion) damage makes it the world's costliest natural disaster. Global financial market jitters over the crisis have calmed, though supply disruptions are affecting the motor and technology sectors.

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he was not concerned that the crisis in Japan would impede a US recovery. — Reuters


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West strikes Libya forces; Nato sees 90-day campaign

Posted: 25 Mar 2011 05:21 PM PDT

A Qatar Emiri Air Force Dassault Mirage 2000-5 fighter jet takes off from Souda Bay in Greece as part of a Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn mission in this March 25, 2011, handout photograph. — Reuters pic

TRIPOLI, March 26 — Western warplanes bombed Muammar Gaddafi's tanks and artillery in eastern Libya yesterday to try to break a battlefield stalemate and help rebels take the strategic town of Ajdabiyah.

While the African Union said it was planning to facilitate talks to help end war in the oil-producing country, Nato said its no-fly zone operation could last three months, and France cautioned the conflict would not end soon.

In Washington, a US military spokeswoman said the coalition fired 16 Tomahawk cruise missiles and flew 153 air sorties in the past 24 hours targeting Gaddafi's artillery, mechanised forces and command and control infrastructure.

Western governments hope the raids, launched today with the aim of protecting civilians, will shift the balance of power in favour of the Arab world's most violent popular revolt.

In Tripoli, residents reported another air raid just before dawn, hearing the roar of a warplane, followed by a distant explosion and bursts of anti-aircraft gunfire.

As the United States said Gaddafi's ability to command and sustain his forces was diminishing, Libyan state TV said the "brother leader" had promoted all members of his armed forces and police "for their heroic and courageous fight against the crusader, colonialist assault", without giving further details.

Rebels massing for an attack on the strategically important town of Ajdabiyah exchanged artillery fire with Gaddafi's forces.

Opposition forces on the road to Ajdabiyah seemed more organised than in recent days, when their disarray stirred doubts about their ability to challenge Gaddafi.

They had set up road blocks at regular intervals and Reuters counted at least four truck-based rocket launchers -- heavier weaponry than had been seen earlier this week.

Winning back Ajdabiyah would be the biggest victory for the eastern rebels since their initial push westwards went into reverse two weeks ago and the better-equipped Gaddafi forces drove them back towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

It would also signal that allied air strikes may be capable of helping rebel fighters eventually topple Gaddafi.


Not days, weeks

At African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, AU commission chairman Jean Ping said it was planning to facilitate peace talks in a process that should end with democratic elections.

It was the first statement by the AU, which had rejected any form of foreign intervention in the Libya crisis, since the UN Security Council imposed a no-fly zone last week and air strikes began on Libyan military targets.

But in Brussels, a Nato official said planning for Nato's operation assumed a mission lasting 90 days, although this could be extended or shortened as required. France said the war could drag on for weeks.

"I doubt that it will be days," Admiral Edouard Guillaud, the head of French armed forces, told France Info radio. "I think it will be weeks. I hope it will not take months."

Guillaud said a French plane destroyed an army artillery battery near Ajdabiyah, while in London, the Ministry of Defence said British Tornado aircraft had also been active there.

A Reuters correspondent who travelled close to Ajdabiyah during the day yesterday saw large plumes of black smoke rising above the eastern entrance to the town.

A rocket apparently fired from rebel positions then hit the eastern gate, sending a fireball into the sky. "The eastern gate has fallen and we are sending a team to check before moving forward," rebel Colonel Hamad al-Hasi told Reuters.

In Benghazi, rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said he expected Ajdabiyah to fall following the Western strikes.

"This (the strikes) will weaken their forces and more importantly their morale," he said, adding the level of Western strikes was "sufficient. We feel safe under their protection."

Simon Brooks, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross operations in eastern Libya, reported big population movements from the Ajdabiyah area because of the fighting.

Officials and rebels said aid organisations were able to deliver some supplies to the western city of Misrata but were concerned because of government snipers in the city centre.

Gaddafi's forces shelled an area on the outskirts of the city, killing six people including three children, a rebel said. Misrata has had some of the heaviest fighting between rebels and Gaddafi's forces since an uprising began on February 16.

Qatari plane joins air patrols

Nato said on Thursday after four days of tough negotiations that it would enforce the no-fly zone but stopped short of taking full command of UN-mandated military operations to protect civilians from forces loyal to Gaddafi.

Libyan mourners at the martyrs' cemetery in Tripoli, March 24, 2011, attend the funeral of what officials claim to be those of people killed in air strikes by coalition forces. — Reuters pic

Differences over the scope the UN resolution gave for military action against Gaddafi's army led to days of heated arguments within Nato about its role in the operation.

The United States, embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, is keen to step back and play a supporting role in Libya in order to preserve alliance unity and maintain the support of Muslim countries for the UN-mandated intervention.

Despite the apparently cumbersome structure of the planned new command and Arab jitters on the use of force, the operation continues to receive support from beyond Western ranks.

The United Arab Emirates said it would send 12 planes to take part in operations to enforce the no-fly zone.

Qatar has contributed two fighters and two military transport planes. A coalition taskforce statement said a Qatari Mirage 2000-5 jet joined a French air force plane over Libya yesterday, making it the first Arab country to begin patrolling.

Some countries critical of the operation have suggested Western powers had exceeded the UN mandate, especially since they have said publicly they would like Gaddafi to go, and also expressed concerns about civilian deaths from air strikes.

Libyan officials and hospital workers said civilians, including women, were among those killed in the latest Western air strikes in Tripoli. There was no way to independently verify the report.

Security analysts have also warned against the risk of the West becoming embroiled in a lengthy civil war, effectively taking the side of a rebel movement they know little about.

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the West could not be certain of the outcome but told Reuters the risk was justified and that standing aside while Gaddafi's forces killed civilians would have caused public outrage in Britain.

"No one should think that you can launch a mission like this and be absolutely 100 per cent sure what is going to come of this," he said.

"There are risks. It is going to be untidy. There are going to be unintended consequences. People have got to accept there is always a degree of uncertainty in these kinds of undertakings." — Reuters



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