Japanese authorities call for U.N. inspection of nuclear plant damage


TOKYO (AP) – U.N. nuclear experts should be invited to inspect a Japanese nuclear power station damaged in this week’s earthquake to help restore public confidence, a top local official said Sunday. The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant – the world’s largest in terms of capacity – announced a barrage of leaks and malfunctions last week after Monday’s magnitude 6.8 temblor, which killed 10 people and injured more than 1,000 in northwestern Japan.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, and nuclear regulators have said that the amounts of radioactivity leaked were extremely low and posed no threat to the environment or residents.

But the damage has raised concerns about the plant’s safety, prompting the government to order it shuttered indefinitely until its safety can be confirmed. In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trade Minister Akira Amari and four other senior officials, Governor Hirohiko Iizumida of Niigata prefecture (state) – the site of the Kashiwazaki Kariwa power plant – said while the plant’s problems and leaks have not resulted in bodily harm, they are creating “great unease” among locals.

“Furthermore, images of the accident have been broadcast everywhere around the world and are creating misunderstandings,” Izumida said in the letter, a copy of which was seen by The Associated Press.

“It is making this country’s citizens uneasy, too, and may lead to harmful rumors about the prefecture’s tourism and agriculture industries,” he said.

To counteract this and ensure that accurate information gets out, the letter concluded, the government should ask the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the plant “as quickly as possible.”

Earlier this week, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said that a thorough review of the plant’s problems was key and offered to have his Vienna-based agency pull together global experts to do so. Japan told the agency Friday that it was passing for now on the offer.

Monday’s earthquake resulted in a raft of malfunctions, damage and mistakes at the plant, including a fire that charred an electrical transformer, planks that toppled into a pool of spent nuclear fuel and 400 barrels of atomic waste that were knocked over.

The problems – exacerbated by TEPCO’s delays in notifying the public – were capped by news that radioactive water had sloshed out of a tank and was flushed out to sea, and that radioactive material was vented into the air in two separate instances.

Officials at the Kashiwazaki plant have acknowledged they had not foreseen such a powerful quake hitting the facility and have repeatedly underreported its impact after it hit.

AP-ES-07-22-07 1203EDT