Video: Tokyo still tepid about water safety

msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Japanese nuclear safety officials said Friday that they suspect that the reactor core at one unit of the troubled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant may have breached, raising the possibility of more severe contamination to the environment.

"It is possible that somewhere at the reactor may have been damaged," said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for the nuclear safety agency. But he added that "our data suggest the reactor retains certain containment functions," implying that the damage may have occurred in Unit 3's reactor core but that it was limited.

Officials say the damage could instead have happened in other equipment, including piping or the spent fuel pool.

Operators have been struggling to keep cool water around radioactive fuel rods in the reactor's core after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami cut off power supply to the plant and its cooling system.

Damage could have been done to the core when a March 14 hydrogen explosion blew apart Unit 3's outer containment building.

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This reactor, perhaps the most troubled at the six-unit site, holds 170 tons of radioactive fuel in its core. Previous radioactive emissions have come from intentional efforts to vent small amounts of steam through valves to prevent the core from bursting. However, releases from a breach could allow uncontrolled quantities of radioactive contaminants to escape into the surrounding ground or air.

Operators stopped work Friday at units 1 through 3 to check on radiation levels.

Meanwhile, radiation injuries to workers complicated the battle to control the plant on Friday, two weeks after a quake and tsunami that also left more than 27,000 people dead or missing.

More than 700 engineers have been working in shifts around the clock to stabilize the six-reactor Fukushima complex since the multiple disaster.

But they had to pull out of some parts of the complex, 150 miles north of Tokyo, when three workers replacing a cable at one reactor were exposed to high contamination by standing in radioactive water on Thursday, officials said.

Two were taken to a hospital with possible radiation burns after the water seeped over their boots.

"We should try to avoid delays as much as possible, but we also need to ensure that the people working there are safe," said Japanese nuclear agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama.

Safety fears at the plant and beyond — radiation particles have been found as far away as Iceland — are compounding Japan's worst crisis since World War Two.

More than two dozen people have been injured trying to bring the plant under control.

Two of the reactors are now regarded as safe in what is called a cold shutdown. Four remain volatile, emitting steam and smoke periodically, but work is advancing to restart water pumps needed to cool fuel rods inside those reactors.

"It's much more hopeful," said Tony Roulstone, a nuclear energy expert at Cambridge University.

The United States has been offering aid to its ally Japan, and two of its barges will together provide 525,000 gallons (2.0 million liters) of water for cooling the reactors.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said the three injured workers were carrying radiation meters but ignored an alarm when it rang. Engineers would be briefed again on safety.

Water rush continues
Heightened by widespread public ignorance of the technicalities of radiation, alarm has been spreading.

Vegetable and milk shipments from the areas near the plant have been stopped, and Tokyo's 13 million residents were told this week not to give tap water to babies after contamination from rain put radiation at twice the safety level.

But it dropped back to safe levels the next day, and the city governor cheerily drank water in front of cameras at a water purifying plant.

Despite government reassurances and appeals for people not to panic, there has been a rush on bottled water and shelves in many Tokyo shops remained empty of the product on Friday.

"Customers ask us for water. But there's nothing we can do," said Tokyo supermarket worker Masayoshi Kasahara.

The government is dipping into stockpiles, and there have been donations of bottled water from abroad.

The National Police Agency said Friday the death toll has topped 10,000, and more than 17,440 people are listed as missing. Hundreds of thousands have been left homeless.

Video: Tokyo still tepid about water safety (on this page)

The U.S. and Australia halted imports of Japanese dairy and produce from the region, Hong Kong said it would require that Japan perform safety checks on meat, eggs and seafood, and Canada said it would upgrade controls on imports of Japanese food products. Singapore, too, has banned the sale of milk, produce, meat and seafood from areas near the plant.

Concerns also spread to Europe. In Iceland, officials said they measured trace amounts of radioactive iodine in the air but assured residents it was "less than a millionth" of levels found in Europe in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — the world's worst nuclear accident.

Radioactive iodine is short-lived, with a half-life of eight days — the length of time it takes for half of it to break down harmlessly. However, experts say infants are particularly vulnerable to radioactive iodine, which can cause thyroid cancer.

New readings Thursday showed the city's tap water was back to levels acceptable for infants, but the relief was tempered by elevated levels of the isotope in two neighboring prefectures: Chiba and Saitama. A city in a third prefecture, just south of the plant, also showed high levels of radioactive iodine in tap water, officials said.

Tap water in Kawaguchi City in Saitama, north of Tokyo, contained 210 becquerels of radioactive iodine — well above the 100 becquerels considered safe for babies but below the 300-becquerel level for adults, Health Ministry official Shogo Misawa said.

In Chiba prefecture, the water tested high for radiation in two separate areas, said water safety official Kyoji Narita. The government there warned families in 11 cities in Chiba not to give infants tap water.

"The high level of iodine was due to the nuclear disaster," Narita said. "There is no question about it."

Radiation levels also tested dangerously high in Hitachi in Ibaraki prefecture, about 70 miles south of the Fukushima plant, city water official Toshifumi Suzuki said, adding that officials were distributing bottled water.

The limits refer to sustained consumption rates, and officials said parents should stop using tap water for baby formula, although it was OK for infants to consume small amounts.
Video: U.S. sees progress in Japan relief operation (on this page)

Despite the appeals, shelves were bare in many stores across Tokyo.

Maruetsu supermarket in the city center sought to impose buying limits on specific items to prevent hoarding: only one carton of milk per family, one 5-kilogram (11-pound) bag of rice, one package of toilet paper, one pack of diapers. Similar notices at some drugs stores told women they could only purchase two feminine hygiene items at a time.

Maruetsu spokeswoman Kayoko Kano acknowledged that the earthquake and tsunami resulted in delays of some products.

Some frustrated shoppers have turned to the city's many vending machines as an alternative. The machines are found everywhere in the city and one can feature about three dozen different beverages — ranging from hot coffee and green tea to power drinks and juice. A 500-milliliter bottle of imported water costs about 100 yen (about $1.25).

A spokesman for Procter & Gamble Japan said its plant was fully operational but that rolling blackouts in Tokyo may be affecting distribution. "Consumers are nervous, and they may be buying up supplies," Noriyuki Endo added.

Hardships
Worse hardships continued in the frigid, tsunami-struck northeast. Some 660,000 households still do not have water, the government said. Electricity has not been restored to some 209,000 homes, Tohoku Electric Power Co. said. Damage is estimated at $309 billion, making it the most costly natural disaster on record.

In one bright spot of economic news, Toyota Motor Corp. — which had suspended production due to damage to suppliers' factories and power shortages in the quake zone — said it will soon resume production of the Prius and two other hybrid models.

But rival Honda Motor Co. said the suspension of car production at its Saitama and Suzuka factories will be extended to April 3.

The economic woes spawned by the disasters were especially painful for farmers in the region near the nuclear plant.

Sumiko Matsuno, a 65-year-old farmer in Fukushima, spent Thursday frantically harvesting vegetables from her fields.

"We are digging up all our carrots and onions as fast as we can. We can't sell them but we need them ourselves for food," she said. "We are really worried about our future. If this goes on, it is going to really hurt us."

Exhausted rescuers are still sifting through the wreckage of towns and villages, retrieving bodies.

Amid the suffering, though, there was a sense that Japan was turning the corner in its humanitarian crisis. Aid flowed to refugees, and phone, electricity, postal and bank services began returning to the north, sometimes by makeshift means.

"Things are getting much better," said 57-year-old Tsutomu Hirayama, staying with his family at an evacuation center in Ofunato town.

"For the first two or three days, we had only one rice ball and water for each meal. I thought, how long is this going to go on? Now we get lots of food, it's almost like luxury."

The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Map: Japan earthquake

  1. Above: Map Japan earthquake
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  3. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Timeline Crisis in Japan

Explainer: The 10 deadliest earthquakes in recorded history

  • A look at the worst earthquakes in recorded history, in loss of human life. (The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsumani that affected eastern Japan is not included because the fatalities caused, about 15,000, are fewer than those resulting from the temblors listed below.) Sources: United States Geological Survey, Encyclopedia Britannica

  • 1: Shensi, China, Jan. 23, 1556

    Magnitude about 8, about 830,000 deaths.

    This earthquake occurred in the Shaanxi province (formerly Shensi), China, about 50 miles east-northeast of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi. More than 830,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Damage extended as far away as about 270 miles northeast of the epicenter, with reports as far as Liuyang in Hunan, more than 500 miles away. Geological effects reported with this earthquake included ground fissures, uplift, subsidence, liquefaction and landslides. Most towns in the damage area reported city walls collapsed, most to all houses collapsed and many of the towns reported ground fissures with water gushing out.

  • 2: Tangshan, China, July 27, 1976

    Chinese Earthquake
    Keystone  /  Getty Images
    1976: Workers start rebuilding work following earthquake damage in the Chinese city of Tangshan, 100 miles east of Pekin, with a wrecked train carriage behind them. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
    Magnitude 7.5. Official casualty figure is 255,000 deaths. Estimated death toll as high as 655,000.

    Damage extended as far as Beijing. This is probably the greatest death toll from an earthquake in the last four centuries, and the second greatest in recorded history.

  • 3: Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 9, 1138

    Magnitude not known, about 230,000 deaths.

    Contemporary accounts said the walls of Syria’s second-largest city crumbled and rocks cascaded into the streets. Aleppo’s citadel collapsed, killing hundreds of residents. Although Aleppo was the largest community affected by the earthquake, it likely did not suffer the worst of the damage. European Crusaders had constructed a citadel at nearby Harim, which was leveled by the quake. A Muslim fort at Al-Atarib was destroyed as well, and several smaller towns and manned forts were reduced to rubble. The quake was said to have been felt as far away as Damascus, about 220 miles to the south. The Aleppo earthquake was the first of several occurring between 1138 and 1139 that devastated areas in northern Syria and western Turkey.

  • 4: Sumatra, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2004

    Aerial images show the extent of the devastation in Meulaboh
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    MEULABOH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 29: In this handout photo taken from a print via the Indonesian Air Force, the scene of devastation in Meulaboh, the town closest to the Sunday's earthquake epicentre, is pictured from the air on December 29, 2004, Meulaboh, Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. The western coastal town in Aceh Province, only 60 kilometres north-east of the epicentre, has been the hardest hit by sunday's underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Officials expected to find at least 10,000 killed which would amount to a quarter of Meulaboh's population. Three-quarters of Sumatra's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out after the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. (Photo by Indonesian Air Force via Getty Images)

    Magnitude 9.1, 227,898 deaths.

    This was the third largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the largest since the 1964 Prince William Sound, Alaska temblor. In total, 227,898 people were killed or were missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in South Asia and East Africa. (In January 2005, the death toll was 286,000. In April 2005, Indonesia reduced its estimate for the number missing by over 50,000.)

  • 5: Haiti, Jan 12, 2010

    Haitians walk through collapsed building
    Jean-philippe Ksiazek  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Haitians walk through collapsed buildings near the iron market in Port-au-Prince on January 31, 2010. Quake-hit Haiti will need at least a decade of painstaking reconstruction, aid chiefs and donor nations warned, as homeless, scarred survivors struggled today to rebuild their lives. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK (Photo credit should read JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

    Magnitude 7.0. According to official estimates, 222,570 people killed.

    According to official estimates, 300,000 were also injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti. This includes at least 4 people killed by a local tsunami in the Petit Paradis area near Leogane. Tsunami waves were also reported at Jacmel, Les Cayes, Petit Goave, Leogane, Luly and Anse a Galets.

  • 6: Damghan, Iran, Dec. 22, 856

    Magnitude not known, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake struck a 200-mile stretch of northeast Iran, with the epicenter directly below the city of Demghan, which was at that point the capital city. Most of the city was destroyed as well as the neighboring areas. Approximately 200,000 people were killed.

  • 7: Haiyuan, Ningxia , China, Dec. 16, 1920

    7.8 magnitude, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake brought total destruction to the Lijunbu-Haiyuan-Ganyanchi area. Over 73,000 people were killed in Haiyuan County. A landslide buried the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County. More than 30,000 people were killed in Guyuan County. Nearly all the houses collapsed in the cities of Longde and Huining. About 125 miles of surface faulting was seen from Lijunbu through Ganyanchi to Jingtai. There were large numbers of landslides and ground cracks throughout the epicentral area. Some rivers were dammed, others changed course.

  • 8: Ardabil, Iran, March. 23, 893

    Magnitude not known, about 150,000 deaths

    The memories of the massive Damghan earthquake (see above) had barely faded when only 37 years later, Iran was again hit by a huge earthquake. This time it cost 150,000 lives and destroyed the largest city in the northwestern section of the country. The area was again hit by a fatal earthquake in 1997.

  • 9: Kanto, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923

    Kanto Damage
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images
    1923: High-angle view of earthquake and fire damage on Hongokucho Street and the Kanda District, taken from the Yamaguchi Bank building after the Kanto earthquake, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    7.9 magnitude, 142,800 deaths.

    This earthquake brought extreme destruction in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, both from the temblor and subsequent firestorms, which burned about 381,000 of the more than 694,000 houses that were partially or completely destroyed. Although often known as the Great Tokyo Earthquake (or the Great Tokyo Fire), the damage was most severe in Yokohama. Nearly 6 feet of permanent uplift was observed on the north shore of Sagami Bay and horizontal displacements of as much as 15 feet were measured on the Boso Peninsula.

  • 10: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Oct. 5, 1948

    7.3 magnitude, 110,000 deaths.

    This quake brought extreme damage in Ashgabat (Ashkhabad) and nearby villages, where almost all the brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged and freight trains were derailed. Damage and casualties also occurred in the Darreh Gaz area in neighboring Iran. Surface rupture was observed both northwest and southeast of Ashgabat. Many sources list the casualty total at 10,000, but a news release from the newly independent government on Dec. 9, 1988, advised that the correct death toll was 110,000. (Turkmenistan had been part of the Soviet Union, which tended to downplay the death tolls from man-made and natural disasters.)

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