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Japan Struggles With Nuclear, Evacuee Woes


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

In Japan today, freezing rain and snow are adding to the miseries of people struggling to recover from the earthquake and tsunami that struck there two weeks ago. The weather has been especially hard on those who live near a stricken nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture. Thousands of people have been asked to leave the area, in part to avoid exposure to radiation.

NPR's Jon Hamilton has been covering developments at the nuclear plant from Tokyo. Jon, thanks for joining us.

JON HAMILTON: My pleasure.

SIMON: And what have you been able to learn today?

HAMILTON: Well, I'll start with the good news, which is that there hasn't been any major release of radiation in actually quite a few days now. The bad news is that there are still a lot of problems at the plant. Remember, this power plant is actually six different nuclear reactors. And so far, four of them have had pretty serious trouble.

And most recently, what you had is trouble with radioactive water. They've found out because workers were running a cable in what's known as the turbine building of one of the reactors. They were in the basement, there was a lot of water on the floor, some of it got inside their boots. And as it turned out, this water was radioactive enough to actually cause some minor radiation burns on at least a couple of the workers.

So, that has led to a lot of speculation about where this radioactive water is coming from. The scariest possibility is that it came through some sort of crack in the core of the reactor. There's really no way to fix that sort of damage. And, of course, any sort of crack could provide a way for radioactive material to get out.

SIMON: Jon, what do you do with radioactive water?

HAMILTON: The Tokyo Electric Power Company has said that they intend to pump out the radioactive water in the basement. But there's a whole lot of water. You know, they've been bringing in fire trucks and pumping tons and tons and tons of water in to cool down the reactor cores. And so, there's an incredible amount of runoff. And a lot of that runoff appears to be radioactive.

So, it appears what's happening is that it's running downhill and running back out into the ocean. And, in fact, the safety agency from the Japanese government has reported high levels of certain radioactive materials near the outlet where things run out from the plant into the ocean.

SIMON: So, does this step up call to the government is making for people to evacuate the area?

HAMILTON: I'm not sure that this is why they have stepped up call. They have been expanding this area of evacuation. And at the moment, we're talking about people who are roughly 12 to 18 miles from the plant. And one of the reasons they may not have done this before is that it is really difficult to find a place to put thousands of people.

On the other hand, the living conditions in this area have gotten really tough. There have been reports of people who have died from exposure and lack of facilities there. So, perhaps the need to get these people out is more than it was before, and especially now when there's sleet and snow and it's very cold.

SIMON: Do you contain the fear of radiation or does that spread all over the country?

HAMILTON: Well, the fear of radiation seems to have spread pretty rapidly. Here in Tokyo this past week, there was a report from the local government that the levels of radiation in the tap water were a little bit high. And that was all it took to have this amazing run on bottled water. It just disappeared off of store shelves.

I have also heard reports that up in the Fukushima area there are truck drivers who ordinarily would deliver food and supplies to the area relatively close to the plant, but they just won't go there because they're afraid of the radiation. So, you have this situation where, in some ways, the hardship near the plant in this area they're talking about evacuating, part of the reason it's so tough is that there are so many people who are afraid of the radiation.

SIMON: NPR's Jon Hamilton in Tokyo. Thanks so much.

HAMILTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.