Nuclear plant was storing too much spent fuel as tsunami hit

A Japanese radiation expert has claimed that life just one kilometre outside the restricted area surrounding the stricken nuclear plant leaking radiation is "as safe as London".

In the latest proclamation by officials trying to reassure people that they face minimal danger from the nuclear crisis a government adviser said the public had been misled by inaccurate information.

But it came amid more sinister news as it emerged that the plant had contained far more spent fuel rods than it was designed to store, while its technicians failed to carry out the necessary safety checks, according to documents from the reactor's operator.

Despite hopes of progress in the world's most major nuclear crisis in a quarter of a century, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said it needed more time before it could say the reactors were stabilised. The documents also showed that the the company repeatedly missed safety checks over a 10-year period up to two weeks before the 11 March disaster, and allowed uranium fuel rods to pile up inside the 40-year-old facility.

Yesterday smoke and steam were seen rising from two of the most threatening reactors, two and three, whilst several blasts of steam are thought to probably have released a small amount of radioactive particles.

The news is likely to aggrieve the public, especially in the wake of claims earlier in the day from a Japanese radiation expert that life just 1km outside the restricted area surrounding the stricken nuclear plant leaking radiation is "as safe as London".

"The people we should worry about are those working at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Otherwise we do not have to worry about exposure," said Professor Shunichi Yamashita.

Professor Yamashita, from Nagasaki University, said radiation in Tokyo was minuscule and being hyped needlessly by the media: "We're talking about microsieverts [SI unit of radiation] a year not millisieverts," he said. "The dose is crucial. It's nonsense to worry about microsieverts."

Concerns about radiation in Tokyo have prompted thousands of foreigners and Japanese citizens to leave. Many businesses have relocated to the west of Japan or Hong Kong. The latest radiation reading over 24 hours was 0.34 microsieverts though the figure is increasing slightly. Yesterday the professor said exposure to 11.4 microsieverts per hour was the safety benchmark.

Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency found radiation 1,600 times higher than normal around the town of Namie, near Fukushima. But Professor Yamashita said at a briefing in Tokyo: "People who evacuated from the 20km zone are completely safe." Japan's Prime Minister last week advised 140,000 people living within between 20km and 30km of the complex to leave. Many have criticised the perimeter as arbitrary. The US government says 80km is the safe limit.

Professor Yamashita said most radiation-linked illnesses in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, including thyroid cancer, came not from direct exposure but from consuming food, especially contaminated milk. "Compared to Chernobyl the Fukushima radiation release is still very, very low," he said. "I want the media to make this clear."

Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear disaster, has been linked to thousands of thyroid cancer cases since the plant in Ukraine went into meltdown.

The Japanese government has imposed a ban on food products from Fukushima and surrounding areas. Small quantities of radiation have been detected in spinach and milk. The government has also begun studying contamination of fish food after discovering radioactive materials 128 times higher than the legal limit in the seas around the plant.It was reported yesterday that minuscule amounts of radioactive particles believed to have come from the Fukushima power plant had been detected as far away as Iceland.

For those people who have been evacuated from the danger zone near the nuclear plant, these are days of anxiety. Around 1,400 people are living in the town's gymnasium which has been turned into an evacuation centre, and yesterday there were long queues for bowls of hot noodle soup. As many as 2.4 million people are still without water and nearly 250,000 households have no power.

Profiting from the doom

The huge earthquake and tsunami that ripped through north-eastern Japan 11 days ago has led to lots of stories of stoicism and pulling together. But not in every case.

Police said the disaster crippled a bank's security mechanisms and left a safe wide open. That allowed someone to walk off with ¥40m, about £300,000.

The tsunami washed over the Shinkin Bank, like much else in Kesennuma in Japan's north-east region, and police said that with the combination of the flooding and the ensuing power outages the vault came open.

"The bank was flooded and things were thrown all over. It was a total mess. Somebody stole the money in the midst of the chaos," a police official in the Miyagi region said.

The bank notified police yesterday when the theft was discovered. AP