SEOUL Concerns about radiation fallout from Japan's nuclear disaster prompted some schools in South Korea to shut on Thursday as rain fell over most of the country, but the nuclear safety agency played down immediate health risks.
School boards across the country, Japan's closest neighbor, advised principals to use their discretion in scrapping outdoor activities to address concerns among parents, an education official said.
"We've sent out an official communication today that schools should try to refrain from outdoor activities," the official said, adding the school board did not want to alarm parents unduly with the current level of radiation reported.
Some schools in the Gyeonggi province outlying the capital Seoul chose to shut for the day, Yonhap news agency reported.
The biggest school for expatriate children in the capital, the Seoul Foreign School, said all outdoor activities had been canceled, but it would remain open as the U.S. and British embassies had not issued warnings.
The country's nuclear safety agency said a small level of radioactive iodine and cesium particles were reported in the rain falling on the island of Jeju off the country's south coast but it was not enough to cause public health concern.
The Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety (KINS) said it expected to find radioactive materials since iodine and cesium particles have been floating in the air for the past three weeks. "Rain will pick up such particles as they fall from the sky," Yonhap quoted the institute as saying.
Many Koreans donned face masks, and streets near schools in Seoul were more congested than usual, with parents choosing to drive their children rather than have them walk or use public transport.
The meteorological agency said the atmospheric flow continued to head toward the east at low altitudes near the Fukushima nuclear plant in central Japan and it is unlikely particles will be carried directly to the Korean peninsula.
Medical experts said the level detected currently did not pose a health risk.
South Korea has formed a ministerial taskforce to ensure public health and food safety in the face of possible radiation exposure from the nuclear disaster.
President Lee Myung-bak on Thursday urged a stepped up inspection of imported food.
"We are geographically closer to Japan than others like the United States or Europe, we people are bound to be more worried," he said while visiting the Korea Food and Drug Administration.
"And the people have very high expectations when it comes to food safety so inspection of imported food must be conducted very tightly."
South Korea and China have complained they were not fully informed by Tokyo about plans to release radioactive water from the stricken Fukushima plant this week into the Pacific Ocean.
Engineers have been struggling to contain radiation leaks from the six-reactor complex which was crippled by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami off Japan on March 11. The disaster left nearly 28,000 people dead or missing and thousands homeless.
On Wednesday, the plant operator said it had succeeded in plugging the leak at reactor No.2, but they still needed to pump 11.5 million liters (11,500 tonnes) of contaminated water back into the ocean because they have run out of storage space at the facility. The water was used to cool overheated fuel rods.
Nuclear experts said the damaged reactors, which lie about 1,000 km east of the Korean peninsula, were far from being under control. On Thursday, Japan was pumping nitrogen gas into a crippled nuclear reactor, trying to prevent an explosive buildup of hydrogen gas.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)