Engineers are trying to stabilise a six-reactor nuclear plant in Fukushima, 250 km north of the capital, nearly two weeks after an earthquake and tsunami battered the plant and devastated northeastern Japan.
Tokyo’s 13 million residents were told not to give tap water to babies under one year old after contamination hit twice the safety level this week. But it dropped back to allowable amounts on Thursday. Despite government appeals against panic, many supermarkets and stores sold out of bottled water.
“Customers ask us for water. But there is nothing we can do,” said Masayoshi Kasahara, a store clerk at a supermarket in a residential area of eastern Tokyo. “We are asking for more deliveries but we don’t know when the next shipment will come.” Radiation above safety levels has also been found in milk and vegetables from Fukushima.
Singapore and Australia joined the US and Hong Kong in restricting food and milk imports from the zone, while Canada became the latest of many nations to tighten screening after the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
A shipping industry official, meanwhile, said some merchant vessels may be avoiding Tokyo port due to concerns that crew members may be exposed to radiation. Radiation particles have been found as far away as Iceland, although Japan insists levels are not dangerous to adults.
In Japan’s devastated north, more than a quarter of a million people are in shelters. Some elderly refugees, among an ageing population, have died from cold and lack of medicines. The official death toll from the disaster has risen to 9,523, but is bound to rise as 16,094 people are still missing.
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.
At the Fukushima plant, where the worst nuclear drama since Chernobyl in 1986 is playing out, technicians have successfully attached power cables to all six reactors and started a pump at one to cool overheating fuel rods. Nearly 300 engineers, fast becoming national heroes for braving danger inside an evacuation zone, are fighting to cool fuel rods at the plant’s reactors.
They resumed work on Thursday at the No 3 reactor, considered the most critical, after a one-day suspension when black smoke was seen rising.
Operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) is trying to re-start systems to keep the fuel cool and prevent further radiation leaks or a complete meltdown, the nightmare scenario.
Three TEPCO employees who were working in water to connect a cable were injured by radiation on Thursday and two were taken to hospital with burns, the nuclear safety agency said.