Japan Extends Evacuation Zone Near Power Plant

Japanese officials expand the evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant to get the last of the isolated residents out of the region. Officials are also trying to figure out the source of radioactive water that burned several workers in the basement of a building next to reactor No. 3. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Jon Hamilton for more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's been more than two weeks now since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the problems at the damaged nuclear plant persist. The most recent troubles involved radioactive water. It turned up in a basement of reactor number three, and it burned three workers there yesterday. Also, the government is evacuating more people from that area.

NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton is following the story from Tokyo.

And, Jon, tell us more about this concern with the radioactive water.

JON HAMILTON: Well, the water is kind of mysterious. Here's what happened. A couple of days ago, workers were running an electrical cable in the basement of what is known as the turbine building. And there was water on the floor. The three workers were wading in it, and it actually got inside their boots. And it turned out that water was highly radioactive. Two of these workers were actually taken to a place that specializes in treating radiation injuries. It looks like they're going to be OK.

But ever since then, people have been trying to figure out how that radioactive water got there. One possibility - and that's because it's only one - is that the core of the reactor was actually cracked or breached, and that allowed radioactive water to get out. That would be bad because you really can't fix a breach in the core. But it's also possible that this is just some kind of plumbing problem. There are pipes that carry water in and out of the core. Some of them go into the turbine building. So a leaky pipe, there could be the reason that the basement is flooded with radioactive water. It's just not clear. What is clear is that there are still problems at the Fukushima plant.

BLOCK: And those problems also have lots of implications, of course, for the emergency workers at that plant.

HAMILTON: Yeah, this is just one more reminder that the workers there are really at risk in a situation like this. You know, already, we had several workers that have been hurt by explosions. There have been fires. More than a dozen have been exposed to radiation. Several have gotten fairly high doses.

And right now, officials are saying that there are about 700 workers at the plant. That's important, because any time there's a release of radiation with that many workers around, it's likely that some of those workers are going to be in a place where, you know, they could be exposed.

BLOCK: We mentioned, Jon, that the Japanese government has now expanded the evacuation zone around the plant. Is that connected with the radioactive water we've been talking about?

HAMILTON: It's really not clear. Remember, the Japanese government has widened this evacuation zone a couple of times already, and they seem to have done that based on measurements showing radiation levels that are high enough to be a problem, certainly if people were exposed for a long time, you know, say, months or years.

And also, the government has already advised people in this area - these are people living 12 to 19 miles from the plant - to stay inside, and that's to avoid radiation exposure.

Now, they're advising those people to leave. But, so far, they're not forcing anyone to leave.

BLOCK: And for the people who are still living in that area near the Fukushima plant, what are you hearing about conditions for them?

HAMILTON: Well, of course, people in this area, you know, the radiation is one of their concerns. But, really, they have a lot of other problems. A lot of the people there have left already. And it looks like the people who stayed - you know, by and large, they don't have running water. They don't have electricity. They don't have heat. A lot of them are in homes that have been really badly damaged. They've lost friends. They've lost family members. And it's cold.

Yesterday, there was video showing people huddled around fires they built in garbage cans, and they were just trying to stay warm.

BLOCK: OK, Jon, thanks very much.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Jon Hamilton reporting from Tokyo.

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