IAEA praises Japan for Fukishima nuclear cleanup

A team of experts from the UN's atomic agency commends Japan for steps it has taken to reduce radiation exposure for the public, particularly children, near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor.
A satellite image shows damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in Japan shortly after March 11's earthquake and tsunami. Massive amounts of radiation spewed into in the surrounding area, forcing tens of thousands to flee. (DigitalGlobe/Associated Press)

A team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency praised Japan on Friday for steps it has taken to reduce radiation exposure for the public, particularly children, near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

During a nine-day trip, the IAEA team visited schools, farms and government offices outside the 20-kilometre exclusion zone surrounding the power plant, which was damaged by the devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

Officials in protective gear check for signs of radiation on children from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northest Japan. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

In a preliminary report submitted to the government, the 12-member team said Japan had developed "an efficient program for remediation -- allocating the necessary legal, financial and technological resources to bring relief to the people affected by the accident, with priority being given to children."

The report noted efforts to decontaminate schools and some 400 playgrounds — mostly by volunteers, many of them parents of students. Towns around the exclusion zone have begun washing down public areas and removing topsoil in parks and school yards.

It was the UN atomic agency's second major mission to Japan since the nuclear crisis began. Its purpose was to assess Japan's strategy and plans to reduce radiation exposure in areas around Fukushima prefecture.

Lessons from Chornobyl

No one has died from radiation in the nuclear crisis, but concerns remain high over how the lingering contamination will affect Fukushima's youth. On Sunday, local doctors began a long-term survey of children in the region for thyroid abnormalities, a problem linked with radiation exposure.

In Ukraine, more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been detected in people who were children or adolescents when they were exposed to high levels of fallout immediately after the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster. Japan's nuclear safety agency has said the radiation that leaked from the Fukushima plant was about one-sixth of that released from Chornobyl.

Tero Tapio Varjoranta, deputy chief of the IAEA team, told a news conference in Tokyo that many of the Chornobyl cancer cases came from drinking milk that contained radioactive cesium, but that Japan's food controls in this area were in "very good order."

The IAEA has "done a lot of work to learn the lessons from Chornobyl," he said.

The report also urged Japanese authorities to help the public focus on dose levels -- the amount of radiation an individual is exposed to -- rather than the contamination of certain areas or objects that could be far from the closest humans.

"Contamination means radioactivity somewhere. Dosage is how it affects me," Varjoranta explained.

The team found Japan's radiation monitoring system was "very good, very extensive," said leader Juan Carlos Lentijo, adding that it would detect any dangerous spike in radiation.

The Fukushima accident forced about 100,000 people living around the plant to be evacuated, and many now live in temporary homes or shelters, uncertain of when they will be able to return to their homes. Some Japanese officials say it could be years.

The earthquake and tsunami killed a confirmed 15,781 people, with 4,086 still unaccounted for.