msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/1/2011 4:42:25 AM ET 2011-04-01T08:42:25

The workers at Japan's stricken nuclear power plant — known as the Fukushima 50 — expect some of them will die within weeks or months, the mother of one has reportedly said.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the power company that runs the plant, said Friday that leaking radiation had seeped into groundwater beneath the site.

The leak is an indicator of how far TEPCO is from stabilizing the dangerously overheating reactors after cooling systems were knocked out in the March 11 quake and tsunami.

Earlier this week, a Japanese minister conceded there was no end in sight to the crisis, although some of the world's largest cement pumps are being sent to Japan , initially to pump water but then to possibly entomb the site as was done in Chernobyl.

The Fukushima 50, who actually are a group of about 300 people who have been working in shifts of 50, have become heroes in Japan and are known as atomic "samurai."

Video: More trouble for Japanese nuclear plant

Speaking to Fox News by phone via an interpreter, the mother of a 32-year-old worker said her son had told her they must have been exposed to lethal doses of radiation.

"My son and his colleagues have discussed it at length and they have committed themselves to die if necessary to save the nation," she said. Fox News said she was tearful as she spoke.

"He told me they have accepted they will all probably die from radiation sickness in the short term or cancer in the long-term," she added.

"They have concluded between themselves that it is inevitable some of them may die within weeks or months. They know it is impossible for them not to have been exposed to lethal doses of radiation," she said.

The woman, who Fox News said spoke on condition of anonymity because the workers had been asked to not speak to the media, added that her son was too scared to sleep on the floor and so had been doing so on a desk.

"But they say high radioactivity is everywhere and I think this will not save him," she said.

Contamination has affected work at the plant, where radioactive water has been pooling, often thwarting the work of powering up the complex's cooling systems.

Sharing radiation meters
Despite the leaks, TEPCO hasn't had enough dosimeters to provide one for each employee since many were destroyed in the earthquake. Under normal circumstances, the gauges, which measure radiation, would be worn at all times.

Officials said Friday that more meters had arrived and there were now enough for everyone.

"We must ensure safety and health of the workers, but we also face a pressing need to get the work done as quickly as possible," said nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama. Until now, sharing meters "has been an unavoidable choice."

TEPCO has repeatedly relaxed safety standards during the crisis in order to prevent frequent violations. That is not uncommon during emergencies.

Story: View images of quake, tsunami by date, location

TEPCO spokesman Naoyuki Matsumo also said iodine-131, a radioactive substance that decays quickly, was found nearly 50 feet below one of the reactors.

The groundwater contamination was found in concentrations 10,000 times higher than the government standard for the plant.

Seiki Kawagoe, an environmental science professor at Tohoku University, said Friday the radioactive substances were unlikely to affect drinking water, noting that radiation tends to dissipate quickly in the ground, as it does in the ocean.

But there are two ways the iodine could eventually affect drinking water if concentrations were high enough.

One is if it were to seep into wells in the area. For now, a 12-mile radius around the plant has been cleared, though residents of the area are growing increasingly frustrated with evacuation orders and have been sneaking back to check on their homes.

Japanese officials have also suggested people within a 19-mile radius should consider leaving, although high levels of radiation have been found up to 25 miles away.

The other concern is that contaminated water from the plant could seep into underground waterways and eventually into rivers used for drinking water.

Tomohiro Mogamiya, an official with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's water supply division, said that was "extremely unlikely" since groundwater would flow toward the ocean, and the plant is right on the coast.

There are two nearby filtration plants for drinking water, and both have been shut down because they are just inside the exclusion zone.

One takes water from the Kido River, to the south, and another takes it from groundwater below Odaka, to the north. Both are several miles from the coast and on higher ground.

"When people return to the area we will test the water to make sure it is safe," said Masato Ishikawa, an official with the Fukushima prefecture's food and sanitation division.

Radiation concerns have rattled the Japanese public, already struggling to return to normal life after the earthquake-borne tsunami pulverized hundreds of miles of the northeastern coast.

Three weeks after the disaster in one of the most connected countries in the world, 260,000 households still do no have running water and 170,000 do not have electricity.

Radioactive cow
In the latest report of food becoming tainted, the government said Friday that a cow slaughtered for beef had slightly elevated levels of cesium, another radioactive particle. Officials stressed that the meat was never put on the market.

Video: Radiation discovered in America's milk supply

Radioactive cesium can build up in the body and high levels are thought to be a risk for various cancers.

It is still found in wild boar in Germany 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, making the pigs off-limits for eating in many cases.

Though TEPCO has acknowledged that it was initially slow to ask for help in dealing with the nuclear crisis, experts from around the world are now flooding in.

French nuclear giant Areva, which supplied fuel to the plant, is helping figure out how to dispose of contaminated water, and American nuclear experts are joining Japanese on a panel to address the disaster.

Japan has also ordered two giant pumps, typically used for spraying concrete, from the U.S.

They are being retrofitted to spray water first, according to Kelly Blickle, a spokeswoman at Putzmeister America Inc. in Wisconsin. At least one similar pump is already in operation at the plant.

A construction company in Augusta, Ga., was among those redirecting the pumps to Japan. Its owner said he believes building a concrete sarcophagus will follow.

"Our understanding is they are preparing to go to next phase and it will require a lot of concrete," Jerry Ashmore told the Augusta Chronicle.

He did not expect the pump to return. "It will be too hot to come back," Ashmore said.

Video: EPA admits to glitches in radiation monitors

U.S. troops also are involved in the search for the dead. Japan's defense ministry said that, starting Friday, the two militaries will create joint teams to look for bodies from the air. So far 11,500 people have been confirmed dead. Another 16,400 are missing, and many may never be found.

Hundreds of thousands more people are living in evacuation centers, most because they lost their homes in the tsunami. But others have been forced to leave their houses near the plant because of radiation concerns.

Some residents are growing angry and frustrated with the government and are increasingly violating the bans to return to their homes to gather whatever they can find.

Fukushima officials have put up posters in all evacuation centers urging residents not to violate the cordon, but also are pressing Tokyo to arrange trips in for the residents as soon as possible.

"There is no doubt in my mind that it is dangerous in there," said Kazuko Hirohara, a 52-year-old nurse from Minami Soma. "I just wish they would have thought about safety before they ruined our lives."

The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this story.

Video: U.S. joins Japan in final sweep for the missing

  1. Closed captioning of: U.S. joins Japan in final sweep for the missing

    >>> it was three weeks ago tonight we learned of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in northern japan and then the nuclear disaster that followed that. tonight here are the latest numbers. more than 11,000 are dead, more than 16,000 still officially listed as missing. today the u.s. military was enlisted in what's being called one of the largest recovery missions ever launched on the planet. an urgent three-day effort to find thousands still unaccounted for who may never be found. nbc's lee cowan is in tokyo for us tonight with more.

    >> reporter: it's a grim turning point. the u.s. military marked three weeks since japan's disaster by helping in a final sweep for the missing. it's a massive effort. more than 100 helicopters, 65 ships, some 25,000 personnel, all searching for bodies washed ashore on coastlines previously inaccessible. for people like makiko, she fears it's her last hope. she's been scouring lists of evacuees looking for her parents, but to no avail. to find them, she says, is my only wish. at the troubled nuclear power plant , radioactive water continues to leak into the ocean. and today it was revealed into the groundwater as well. there are even traces found in beef. vegetable farmers whose spinach and other leafy crops were pulled from the market last week were out today trying to prove to customers that not everything grown near the plant is radioactive. this man has been farming this land for 40 years, but this greenhouse is now barren.

    >> so this whole thing was spinach.

    >> reporter: he tilled it under, just as he was told to do. but now he fears for his other crops, like tomatoes and cucumbers, which he insists are fine. so this is safe? [ speaking foreign language ]

    >> reporter: really good. but reality and perception are two different things. he's already lost 70% of his business so far. in three weeks, he'll be planting his rice crop in the soil, and that's a crop he fears that could be even further stigma tiesed. it will eventually turn into a life-or-death situation, he says. for he and others like him, three weeks isn't the beginning of the end , it's just the end of the beginning. lee cowan, nbc news, tokyo.

    >>> and this is an incredible story. hear heart-wrenching as well.

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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