The federal government has urged Australians within 80km of Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant to evacuate, amid mounting concerns of a full-scale meltdown.
The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) said Australians should observe an exclusion zone much bigger than the 20km one imposed by Japanese authorities.
“The Department of Health and Ageing and ARPANSA believe this is prudent advice as a precautionary measure,” it said in a statement on Thursday.
“While information on radiation levels and wind direction appear unchanged, the situation at the power plant is not stable and it is unclear what will evolve.”
ARPANSA’s advice came shortly after the US made a similar recommendation to its citizens.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) says 14 Australians, believed to have been in areas worst affected by last week’s devastating earthquake and tsunamis, are still unaccounted for. The official number of dead and missing after the disasters has passed 13,000.
There are still no reports of Australian casualties. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said embassy officials were searching morgues, hospitals and emergency shelters for the remaining Australians.
“I’ll be worried until we account for every last one of them,” he said. DFAT has urged Australians to consider leaving Japan to relieve pressure on Japan’s beleaguered infrastructure.
The department said commercial flights still had seats available but it had asked Qantas to consider putting on more flights.
“Australian officials in Tokyo can provide emergency loans to Australians who want to leave Japan but can’t afford air tickets,” the department said in a statement. Mr Rudd said he understood the frustrations of Australians who felt they were not getting enough help.
“Just imagine what our fellow Australians have gone through at this time,” he said.
“Earthquake, tsunami, nuclear concerns and, basically, the total collapse of infrastructure in that band of the Japanese island of Honshu.”
But Mr Rudd praised embassy officials, saying they had been working “round the clock”.
Meanwhile, Australian search and rescue workers are dealing with extreme cold and mountains of debris as they help in the grim search for bodies. Australia’s taskforce chief Rob McNeil said conditions on the ground were extremely confronting and challenging.
“We’ve actually got four inches of snow on the ground at the moment. It’s pretty cold. It’s probably minus two degrees,” Superintendent McNeil told the ABC.
The devastation was staggering, he said. “It’s like a 30-metre wave has come through the town and got as high as it could. Everything has been flattened.”
Two rescuers who were exposed to low levels of radiation from the Fukushima plant were doing fine after undergoing decontamination, he said.