Experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in the Japanese city of Fukushima on Sunday (October 9) to observe the massive decontamination effort following the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Local doctors also began a long-term survey of children for thyroid abnormalities, a problem associated with radiation exposure. Officials hope to test some 360,000 people who were under the age of 18 when the nuclear crisis began in March, and then provide follow-ups throughout their lifetimes. The 12-member IAEA group was to visit farms, schools and government offices throughout Fukushima prefecture in northeastern Japan to observe the cleanup process. It is the U.N. atomic agency's second major mission to Japan since the crisis at Fukushima's Dai-ichi nuclear power plant began.

Nearly 20,000 people were killed when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11, and the disaster severely damaged the Fukushima complex. Officials say the plant is now relatively stable, but tens of thousands of people still cannot or choose not to return to their homes because of the radioactive contamination. No one has died from radiation in the nuclear crisis, but concerns remain high over how the lingering contamination will impact the safety of Fukushima's children.

The thyroid testing programme is intended to allay those fears and build a database that might help deal with future disasters. On its opening day on Sunday, more than 100 children, whose thyroid glands are more susceptible to radioactive iodine than adults, were checked.

The results were not made public, but officials have said that if any abnormalities are discovered, the children to be tested every two years until age 20, and then every five years after that will be provided with further care. — AP

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