Elevated radiation found in Tokyo tap water

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Tokyo's government on Wednesday advised that infants not drink tap water after elevated levels of radiation were found in a city water purification plant.

Levels of radioactive iodine in some city tap water were two times the safety limit for infants, Tokyo Water Bureau officials said.

The officials told reporters that a water treatment center in downtown Tokyo that supplies much of the city's tap water found that some water contained 210 becquerels per liter of iodine 131.

They said the limit for consumption of iodine 131 for infants is 100 becquerels per liter. They recommended that babies not be given tap water, although they said the water is not an immediate health risk for adults.

The announcement came as workers faced another day of struggle to cool damaged reactor cores at Japan's earthquake-hit nuclear complex. The plant is still emitting radiation but the source is unclear, a senior U.N. atomic agency official said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also raised concerns about a lack of information from Japanese authorities, as rising temperatures around the core of one reactor threatened to delay work.

"We continue to see radiation coming from the site ... and the question is where exactly is that coming from?" James Lyons, a senior official of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told a news conference in Vienna on Tuesday.

Despite hopes of progress in the world's worst nuclear crisis in a quarter of a century, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami that left at least 21,000 people dead or missing, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said it needed more time before it could say the reactors were stabilized.

Senior IAEA official Graham Andrew said that the overall situation remained "very serious" and that the U.N. atomic watchdog was concerned it had not received some information from Japan about the Fukushima nuclear plant.

"We have not received validated information for some time related to the containment integrity of unit 1. So we are concerned that we do not know its exact status," he said.

The IAEA also lacks data on the temperatures of the spent fuel pools of reactors 1, 3 and 4, he said, though Japan was supplying other updates.

Technicians working inside an evacuation zone around the plant on Japan's northeast Pacific coast, 150 miles north of Tokyo, have attached power cables to all six reactors and started a pump at one to cool overheating nuclear fuel rods.

Other repercussions from the massive earthquake and tsunami March 11 continued to ripple across the nation as economic losses mounted at three of Japan's flagship companies

In making an announcement after days of anxious waiting by the public, Tokyo Electric Power Co. cautioned that much work needed to be done before the electricity can be turned on. Workers are checking all additional equipment for damage to make sure cooling systems can be safely operated, Tokyo Electric said.

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggers a tsunami, causing enormous damage and killing thousands.

Late Tuesday night, Tokyo Electric said lights went on in the central control room of Unit 3, but that doesn't mean power had been restored to the cooling system. Officials will wait until sometime Wednesday to try to power up the water pumps to the unit.

In another advance, emergency crews dumped 18 tons of seawater into nearly boiling storage pool holding spent nuclear fuel at Unit 2, cooling it to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, Japan's nuclear safety agency said. Steam, possibly carrying radioactive elements, had been rising for two days, and the move lessens the chances that more radiation will seep into the air.

"We cannot leave this alone and we must take care of it as quickly as possible," Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said, the New York Times reported.

The power lines and the sustained dousing together mean authorities are closer to bringing the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, with its six reactors and spent fuel pools, under control. Officials and experts, however, have said days, even weeks would be needed to replace damaged equipment and vent any volatile gas to make sure electricity does not spark an explosion.

Human, economic toll
Three of the country's biggest brands — Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Sony Corp. — put off a return to normal production due to shortages of parts and raw materials because of earthquake damage to factories in affected areas.

Toyota and Honda said they would extend a shutdown of auto production in Japan that already is in its second week, while Sony said it was suspending some manufacturing of popular consumer electronics such as digital cameras and TVs.

The National Police Agency said the overall number of bodies collected so far stood at 9,301, while 13,786 people have been listed as missing.

"We must overcome this crisis that we have never experienced in the past, and it's time to make a nationwide effort," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Tuesday in his latest attempt to try to soothe public anxieties.

While many of the region's schools, gymnasiums and other community buildings are packed with the newly homeless, in the 11 days since the disasters the numbers of people staying in shelters has halved to 268,510, presumably as many move in with relatives.

In the first five days after the disasters struck, the Fukushima complex saw explosions and fires in four of the plant's six reactors, and the leaking of radioactive steam into the air. Since then, progress continued intermittently as efforts to splash seawater on the reactors and rewire the complex were disrupted by rises in radiation, elevated pressure in reactors and overheated storage pools.

Tuesday's turnaround, in part, came as radiation levels abated from last week's highs, allowing authorities to bring in more workers. By Tuesday, 1,000 plant workers, subcontractors, defense troops and firefighters were at the scene, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The Health Ministry ordered officials in the area of the stricken plant to increase monitoring of seawater and seafood after elevated levels of radioactive iodine and cesium were found in ocean water near the complex. Education Ministry official Shigeharu Kato said a research vessel had been dispatched to collect and analyze samples.

There have been few reports of looting since the disasters struck. But someone did take advantage of a bank's crippled security system that left a vault wide open — allowing at least one person to walk off with 40 million yen ($500,000), police said Tuesday.

Apology not accepted
Public sentiment is such in the area that Fukushima's governor rejected a request from the president of Tokyo Electric, or TEPCO, to apologize for the troubles.

"What is most important is for TEPCO to end the crisis with maximum effort. So I rejected the offer," Gov. Yuhei Sato said on national broadcaster NHK. "Considering the anxiety, anger and exasperation being felt by people in Fukushima, there is just no way for me to accept their apology."

Earlier, Japan said there was no need to extend a 12-mile evacuation zone around its tsunami-damaged nuclear plant, despite elevated radiation readings outside the area.

More than 170,000 people have been moved out of the zone, a virtual no-man's land.

"At the moment, there is no need to expand the evacuation area," Edano told a briefing.

The latest available readings from an area six miles outside the evacuation zone show a level of 110 microsieverts per hour in the air, well below a level that would cause health risks but much higher than normal background levels.

It is unclear what background levels would have been this far away from the plant before the tsunami struck, but a reading of 110 microsieverts is roughly 3,000 times Tokyo's normal pre-disaster background level.

Exposure to 100,000 microsieverts a year is the lowest level at which any increase in cancer risk is clearly evident.

The government is advising people living within six miles of the evacuation zone to stay indoors, but radiation in the atmosphere is not the only problem for these people with some food and even tap water having been found to be contaminated.

Elevated levels of radioactive cesium particles in the air are causing particular concern, because cesium can linger longer than, say, radioactive iodine, another element that has been found not only in the atmosphere but also in tap water.

Edano said there were no health risks, even at the highest cesium readings.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said that radiation seeping into the environment is a concern and needs to be monitored. "We are still in an accident that is still in a very serious situation," said Graham Andrew, senior adviser to IAEA chief Yukiya Amano.

Tainted food Radiation fears are reaching well beyond those living near Fukushima and the 430,000 displaced by the earthquake and tsunami to encompass large segments of Japan. T he Fukushima complex has leaked radiation that has found its way into vegetables, raw milk, the water supply and even seawater. Early Wednesday, the government added broccoli to the list of tainted vegetables, which also include spinach, canola, and chrysanthemum greens.

The Health Ministry ordered officials in the area of the stricken plant to increase monitoring of seawater and seafood after elevated levels of radioactive iodine and cesium were found in ocean water near the complex. Education Ministry official Shigeharu Kato said a research vessel had been dispatched to collect and analyze samples.

China, Japan's largest trading partner, has ordered testing of imports of Japanese food. The World Health Organization has urged Japan to adopt stricter measures and reassure the public.

Government officials and health experts say the doses are low and not a threat to human health unless the tainted products are consumed in abnormally excessive quantities. But the government measures to release data on radiation amounts, halt sales of some foods and test others are feeding public worries that the situation may grow more dire.

People at Fukushima city's main evacuation center waited in long lines for bowls of hot noodle soup. A truck delivered toilet paper and blankets. Many among the 1,400 people living in the crowded gymnasium came from communities near the nuclear plant and worry about radiation and weary of the daily routine of the displaced.

"It was an act of God," said Yoshihiro Amano, a grocery store owner whose house is 4 miles from the reactors. "It won't help anything to get angry. But we are worried. We don't know if it will takes days, months or decades to go home. Maybe never. We are just starting to be able to think ahead to that."