The world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years playing out 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo was triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that left at least 21,000 people dead or missing.
Technicians working inside an evacuation zone around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant on Japan’s northeast Pacific coast have attached power cables to all six reactors and started a pump at one of them to cool overheating nuclear fuel rods.
But Kyodo news agency said steam appeared to be rising from reactor No. 2 and white haze was detected above reactor No. 3. There have been several blasts of steam from the reactors during the crisis, which experts say probably released a small amount of radioactive particles.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said later the smoke had turned to steam and it was deemed safe to continue work in bringing the plant under control.
Away from the plant, mounting evidence of radiation in vegetables, water and milk stirred concerns among Japanese and abroad despite officials’ assurances that the levels were not dangerous.
TEPCO said radiation was found in the Pacific Ocean nearby , not surprising given rain and the hosing of reactors with seawater. Some experts said it was unclear where the used seawater was ultimately being disposed.
Radioactive iodine in the sea samples was 126.7 times the allowed limit, while caesium was 24.8 times over, Kyodo said. That still posed no immediate danger, TEPCO said.
“It would have to be drunk for a whole year in order to accumulate to one millisievert,” a TEPCO official said, referring to the standard radiation measurement unit. People are generally exposed to about 1 to 10 millisieverts each year from background radiation caused by substances in the air and soil.
Japan has urged some residents near the plant to stop drinking tap water after high levels of radioactive iodine were detected. It has also stopped shipments of milk, spinach and another vegetable called kakina from the area.
Experts say readings are much lower than around Chernobyl after the 1986 accident in Ukraine.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the radiation impact was more serious than first thought, when it was expected to be limited to 20-30 km (12-19 miles) from the plant.
However, WHO regional spokesman Peter Cordingley told Reuters there was no evidence of contaminated food reaching other countries.
Japan is a net importer of food but it also exports fruit, vegetables, dairy products and seafood, with its biggest markets in Hong Kong, China and the United States.
China said it was monitoring food imports from Japan and South Korea is expanding inspection of Japanese food. Australia’s food regulator said the risk was negligible and no extra restrictions on Japanese food were in place.
Despite the concerns about elevated radiation readings, Japan said there was no need to extend a 20-km (12-mile) evacuation zone around the plant.
More than 170,000 people have been moved out of the zone since the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and 10-metre (30-ft) tsunami smashed into the nuclear complex. Reuters