World News

IAEA team in Japan to inspect quake-hit nuclear plant

TOKYO (Reuters) - A team of experts from the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency arrived in Japan on Sunday to inspect an earthquake-damaged nuclear plant, after pressure from local authorities worried about safety.

Low-level leaks of radioactive material from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power station, the world’s largest, after the 6.8 magnitude July 16 quake fanned concerns over safety in Japan’s scandal-hit nuclear sector.

Media reports said the prefectoral government in Niigata, site of the plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), had asked for inspections because the power station’s problems had caused public concern and spread harmful rumours, hurting local tourism and fisheries.

Japan initially told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it had no need of help.

Philippe Jamet, head of the six-member IAEA team that will start four days of inspections on Monday, told reporters that he hoped the inspection would prove useful for nuclear operators around the world.

“We are going to the plant and identify the lessons learned for the international community,” he said.

The power station, which was built above an active fault line, shut down automatically after the quake and will remain closed indefinitely for safety checks. The government has ordered other nuclear plant operators to carry out strict safety inspections.

TEPCO has said the tremor, which killed 11, injured more than 1,000 and flattened hundreds of homes, was stronger than the plant had been designed to withstand.

Officials in Niigata said they were hoping for an all-clear from the IAEA to help restore confidence in local safety.

Tourists are staying clear of beaches in the city of Kashiwazaki, which was hardest hit by the quake. Many hotels in the city have suffered cancellations during peak tourist season.

Officials quoted by Kyodo news agency said some 80 percent of those cancelling cited concerns over a radiation leak.

“There is no doubt that tourism has been hit hard -- not just in Kashiwazaki but all of Niigata, due to concern about the nuclear plant and fears of another quake,” said an official with the local government’s tourism division.

“We will be very, very grateful for an all-clear from the IAEA.”