Plutonium found in soil at crippled Japan nuclear plant further raises alarm
Plutonium found in soil at the crippled Fukushima nuclear complex heightened alarm on Tuesday over Japan's protracted battle to contain the world's worst atomic crisis in 25 years.
In parliament, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was lambasted for his handling of the disaster, which was triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami that slammed into the coastline north of Tokyo earlier this month.
Already deeply unpopular, Kan assured angry lawmakers that that the government was making public all the information it had available and he apologized for flying over the stricken site one day after the quake, which media reports said had delayed crucial operations to cool the reactors.
Opposition MP Yosuke Isozaki blasted Kan for not ordering evacuation from a zone 20-30 km (12-19 miles) beyond the nuclear plant, asking "is there anything as irresponsible as this?".
Kan said the government was seeking advice on whether to extend the zone beyond its current perimeter of 20 km.
The drama at the six-reactor facility has compounded Japan's agony after the double disaster left more than 28,000 people dead or missing in the devastated northeast.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said the plutonium -- a by-product of atomic reactions and also used in nuclear bombs -- had been found at low-risk levels in five places at the plant, hit by a March 11 quake and tsunami.
"I apologise for making people worried," said Sakae Muto, vice-president of TEPCO, announcing the latest piece of bad news from Fukushima at a briefing during Monday night in Tokyo.
Muto said the traces of plutonium-238, 239 and 240 were in keeping with levels found in Japan in the past due to particles in the atmosphere from nuclear testing abroad.
"It's not at the level that's harmful to human health," Muto added.
Experts believe that at least some of the plutonium may have come from spent fuel rods at Fukushima or damage to reactor Number 3, the only one to use plutonium in its fuel mix.
The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency said the find was expected due to known fuel degradation. But Japan's own nuclear safety agency was concerned at the plutonium samples, whose levels of radioactive decay ranged from 0.18 to 0.54 becquerels per kg.
"While it's not the level harmful to human health, I am not optimistic. This means the containment mechanism is being breached so I think the situation is worrisome," agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama was quoted as saying by Jiji news agency.