Friday, March 25, 2011

What Does Japan's Quake Mean for the U.S.?

NEW YORK – What Does Japan's Quake Mean for the U.S.? With a column I wrote recently, I seem to have helped reignite a debate that enrages many geophysicists: Do quakes occur in clusters—and if so, what does Japan's portend for the U.S.? The answer remains far from clear.

Just as with any academic community, the world of geophysics is much divided. While a good number of scientists see as their central mission the need to be able to predict earthquakes, many utterly abhor the notion. Charles Richter (he of the Scale) was vehement: “I have a horror of predictions and predictors,” he wrote in 1977. “Journalists and the general public rush to any suggestion of earthquake prediction like hogs toward a full trough.”

This week I have found myself in the midst of a schism, one that has become apparent in the aftermath of Japan’s Great Tohoku Earthquake of March 11. That catastrophe has reignited a vigorous argument over whether the various grave geological events that have lately occurred around the Pacific’s so-called Ring of Fire—severe earthquakes in New Zealand, Chile, and now Japan—have left the thus-far seismically untouched Pacific coasts of the United States and Canada peculiarly vulnerable. It is a dispute over the notion of "earthquake prediction," more technical than philosophical, and in essence it revolves around two related questions: Do earthquakes occur in clusters, both in time and place? And if they do, might one quake trigger another?

Large numbers of concerned lay observers—who are generally discounted, reasonably enough, by the geophysical community—believe on the basis of recent experience that some kind of linkage between the recent quakes is blindingly obvious. As all newspaper readers must agree, there seem to have been an awful lot of very big earthquakes lately—Kashmir, Sichuan, Haiti, Sumatra, Valparaiso, Christchurch, Sendai—all since 2005.

But such anecdotally based conclusions do not make sense to many geophysicists, who have clogged up the blogosphere in recent days to say so. Typical of these is Andy Frassetto, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen: The idea “of seismic clustering should not be mistaken for a valid scientific concept…it gains legitimacy through repetition in the media,” he writes. “I cannot think of one seismologist who would consent that large earthquakes can be triggered by other large earthquakes occurring thousands of kilometers away. In such a case, would we be safe anywhere?!”

His view is echoed by Christie Rowe, also a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who writes, “There is no evidence to support the idea that triggering of earthquakes should be related to shared plates—as the entire planet is affected by the seismic waves from large earthquakes, the next big one might as well be in the Himalayan Frontal Thrust or the Northern Anatolian Fault.” In other words, an earthquake in Japan might, if triggering were ever to be proven, cause something in Kashmir or Turkey, and it is both irresponsible and provocative to suggest that it would more probably trigger an event on the same tectonic plate family, as in California or western Canada.

Chile-Christchurch-Sendai—to a lay person, the linkages are as plain as the nose on your face.

But in some quarters, the view is not so doctrinaire. Harold Tobin, professor of Geophysics at the University of Wisconsin, while highly critical of what many of his colleagues deride as "scare-mongering," said that he is not entirely opposed to the clustering idea. “There is an intriguing hypothesis gaining some momentum that earthquakes do occur in clusters, even at long distances,” he wrote. “It is hardly a matter of little doubt. It’s a very new idea, and quite controversial.”

But before mentioning some of those who labor in this very new cluster-trigger field, I have to take courteous issue with Tobin. I wonder if the possibly too-narrow focus of some geophysicists’ perspective keeps some from seeing what is, to others, just plain obvious. For why, indeed, is the notion of clustering so new, so revolutionary?

Geologists have long known, for instance, that the infamous San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, was narrowly preceded by two other devastating events around the Ring of Fire—an earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Ecuador in January 1906, and a powerful earthquake in southern Formosa—Taiwan today—in mid-March. Was that not a cluster? Might Formosa not have played some role in triggering San Francisco?

Much more recently, they must have surely recognized some trans-Himalayan connection between the great Kashmir quake of 2005 and the Sichuan disaster over the hills 30 months later. Were they not linked? Did not Kashmir help release the hairspring that underpinned western China?

Geophysicists do now publicly acknowledge one rather bizarre and provable link. It connects Alaska and Montana, two thousand miles apart—and it was realized after scientists observed that earthquakes on the Denali Fault are swiftly followed by a speeding-up of many of the geysers, of all things, in Yellowstone National Park. Linkage? Triggering?

And now, the Pacific Ring events of Chile-Christchurch-Sendai. To a lay person, the linkages are as plain as the nose on your face.

Yet only a very few scientists agree to say so. Ross Stein, a pre-eminent U.S. government geophysicist at the USGS in Menlo Park, California, is a believer in triggering mechanisms. He is certain, for instance, that the famous 1975 Landers earthquake, near Palm Springs, was linked to and most probably caused some 60,000 shocks in and around Mt. Shasta, 800 miles to the north. Yet he is currently a chastened man. He told The New York Times recently that his community was “humbled” by the lack of real knowledge, despite half a century’s worth of costly (and largely publicly funded) research, about what was truly going on underground. New faults, new structures, kept rupturing, kept causing quakes. “It’s shameful, but we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Chris Goldfinger, associate professor of marine geology at Oregon State University, is much more unequivocally in the cluster-trigger camp. His particular interest is in the Cascadia Subduction zone, the gigantic undersea fault system that, in his view, poses the gravest of all threats to the Pacific Northwest. “It’s of course connected to the Ring of Fire by other faults,” he is quoted as saying in a new book Cascadia’s Fault, due out this spring by the Canadian author Jerry Thompson.

“We have the Queen Charlotte Fault going off into Canada and the San Andreas Fault going off into California, and all of these faults are physically connected. People used to think that fault lines were isolated from one another, but this doesn’t make sense anymore,” Goldfinger said in a recent interview, after promising that the Pacific Northwest was long overdue for a major quake. “Every piece of the earth is connected, so when one moves it is no longer surprising that the other pieces around it can be affected. When you move one, it affects the others.”

And this idea—that when you move one, it affects the others - is the underlying argument, behind the notion that large earthquakes on one side of a major tectonic plate system may cause, or in some way lead to, events on the plate’s far side. And this is why it is far from inconceivable that the temblors in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan may cause, or lead to, events elsewhere—including in what is unarguably the most vulnerable part of all, the American and Canadian west.

The province of British Columbia, and the states of Washington, Oregon, and California, are due for a big earthquake and a major tsunami. The rupturing of the San Andreas (which last ruptured in 1906) or the Hayward Faults will cause the earthquakes; the much more critical possibility of what is called a full-margin rupture of the Cascadia Subduction zone (which last ruptured in 1700) will cause an immense run of tsunamis. How large these events will be, how deep or shallow—and most importantly, when they will happen—all remain unknown. All that can be said with certainty is that they are more likely to break tomorrow than yesterday.

Are we prepared? Are the buildings in Victoria ready to withstand massive ground-shaking and mighty waves? Are the highway bridges in Portland and Seattle sufficiently strong to cope with the kind of forces unleashed in Japan? Why has it taken 22 years for the Bay Bridge across San Francisco Bay to be retrofitted after a relatively modest quake which caused part of it to collapse in 1989? Are Californians as ready as they might be to deal with the psychological trauma caused by destruction, evacuation, and death on a legendary scale?

All these questions need to be addressed, and addressed more urgently now. If it has taken a brutal trinity of events around the Pacific’s Ring of Fire to bring that sobering reality home, then maybe, at long last, those who live their lives among the stunning beauty of the West Coast may accept that this has become, to use a phrase of the day, "a teachable moment."  Though not before time.

Radiation anxiety weighs on tsunami survivors

FUKUSHIMA, Japan – Like characters from a science fiction film, the radiation screeners at this Japanese evacuation center wear futuristic white suits, surgical masks and hoods. Silver gamma ray monitors gleam in their hands as they wand all who enter.

The sight alone is enough to make some children cry. Adults, too, say the uniforms and unfamiliar gizmos give them the shivers.

"It's like a bad dream that won't end," construction worker Takeshi Nemoto said, cradling his 4-year-old son.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused massive death and destruction across northeastern Japan. But those who live near the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant face an additional burden: a fear of radiation that experts say could prove more unhealthy in the long run than the still-low levels of leaked radiation itself.

Already, experts are starting to focus on how "radiation anxiety" — the chronic stress, fear and worry that the mere thought of being exposed to radiation can cause — will impact the region's long-term recovery.

"Our work is just beginning," said psychiatrist Akinobu Hata, the director of the Fukushima Mental Health and Welfare Center. "Right now people who have been through this disaster are living from moment to moment. But we expect the cases of depression and other mental illnesses to rise soon."

The fear is palpable.

Frightened by the television news, Sumiko Matsuno, a farmer in Fukushima, went out into her fields Thursday to frantically dig up all the vegetables she could.

"If it's in the ground it's still safe," she said. "The leafy ones are no good anymore. 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. We are really worried about our future."

In the evacuation center, that feeling was shared by all.

"I have four children," said Mie Sato, 36, who fled her home in the town of Minami Soma not because of the damage but due to the radiation warnings. "My oldest is pregnant, and I worry about what this will do to her baby. It's just a big burden of anxiety that we all have to bear."

That's not to say the radiation leaked so far poses no danger whatsoever. Workers at the nuclear plant are exposed to dangerous doses as they try to make repairs. Vegetables and water in some areas, including the capital Tokyo, have tested higher for radioactive iodine than government standards allow.

But responders say those threats can be managed. And barring any more major problems at the power plant, most specialists say they do not expect radiation sickness to affect the population at large. So far, no radiation illness cases have been reported among the general public.

"We live in a world that has natural background radiation that's many times greater than the amounts we're talking about here," said Harold Swartz, a professor at Dartmouth Medical School in the U.S.

Hata said that based on studies of previous disasters he expects about 10 percent of tsunami survivors to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

With jobs, homes and loved ones lost, other mental problems could factor in as well as realities set in. Many people cannot even begin to search for bodies because the government has ordered everyone within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the nuclear site to leave, and those within an added six-mile (10-kilometer) ring to stay indoors.

"What is unique about this crisis is that we have, on top of all the other suffering, this ongoing radiation issue," Hata said. "We are dealing with an invisible enemy, one that people don't understand well. That adds to the anxieties people already have."

Evacuees from even the areas closest to the plant say that they knew virtually nothing about radioactivity before the current crisis. They look blankly at TV screens showing them updates of the radioactivity levels in their towns several times a day, not understanding what the readings mean.

Hata said efforts are being made to bring in more mental health counselors to aid evacuees but that so far only two child psychologists were available to help.

"The evacuees hear lots of nervous news from Tokyo, which is upsetting," Hata said. "And even when it's good news, if it's coming from people far away it doesn't mean much to them. It's crucial for these people to have someone to talk to face-to-face, someone who is experiencing it here with them."

Aware of the growing emotional burden, officials running the evacuation center have started trying to make the shelter less grim than it was in the first days.

A movie hour is being held for small children. On Thursday, a local restaurant brought in a van full of food and festival toys. Hiroki Miura, a local volunteer, blew up balloons and handed out yo-yos.

"We have to do something to keep their spirits up," he said.

But many evacuees sat listlessly on their blankets or cardboard sheets.

"I can't focus on anything. I just want to go home," said Shigeko Sugioka, 64, who has been huddled in a corner of the center for more than a week. "I'm so tired. We've been through so much."

Breach in reactor suspected at Japanese nuke plant

TOKYO – A suspected breach in the reactor at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant could mean more serious radioactive contamination, Japanese officials revealed Friday, as the prime minister called the country's ongoing fight to stabilize the plant "very grave and serious."

A somber Prime Minister Naoto Kan sounded a pessimistic note at a briefing hours after nuclear safety officials announced what could be a major setback in the urgent mission to stop the plant from leaking radiation, two weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami disabled it.

"The situation today at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant is still very grave and serious. We must remain vigilant," Kan said. "We are not in a position where we can be optimistic. We must treat every development with the utmost care."

The uncertain situation halted work at the nuclear complex, where dozens had been trying feverishly to stop the overheated plant from leaking dangerous radiation. The plant has leaked some low levels of radiation, but a breach could mean a much larger release of contaminants.

The possible breach in Unit 3 might be a crack or a hole in the stainless steel chamber of the reactor core or in the spent fuel pool that's lined with several feet of reinforced concrete. The temperature and pressure inside the core, which holds the fuel rods, remained stable and was far lower than would further melt the core.

Suspicions of a possible breach were raised when two workers waded into water 10,000 times more radioactive than levels normally found in water in or around a reactor and suffered skin burns, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said.

Kan apologized to farmers and business owners for the toll the radiation has had on their livelihoods: Several countries have halted some food imports from areas near the plant after milk and produce were found to contain elevated levels of radiation.

He also thanked utility workers, firefighters and military personnel for "risking their lives" to cool the overheated facility.

The alarm Friday comes two weeks to the day since the magnitude-9 quake triggered a tsunami that enveloped cities along the northeastern coast and knocked out the Fukushima reactor's cooling systems.

Police said the official death toll jumped past 10,000 on Friday. With the cleanup and recovery operations continuing and more than 17,400 listed as missing, the final number of dead was expected to surpass 18,000.

The nuclear crisis has compounded the challenges faced by a nation already saddled with a humanitarian disaster. Much of the frigid northeast remains a scene of despair and devastation, with Japan struggling to feed and house hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors, clear away debris and bury the dead.

A breach could mean a leak has been seeping for days, likely since the hydrogen explosion at Unit 3 on March 14. It's not clear if any of the contaminated water has run into the ground. Radiation readings for the air were not yet available for Friday, but detections in recent days have shown no significant spike.

But elevated levels of radiation have already turned up in raw milk, seawater and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips. Tap water in several areas of Japan — including Tokyo — also showed radiation levels considered unsafe for infants, who are particularly vulnerable to cancer-causing radioactive iodine, officials said.

The scare caused a run on bottled water in the capital, and Tokyo municipal officials are distributing it to families with babies.

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.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano said "safety measures may not be adequate" and warned that may contribute to rising anxiety among people about how the disaster is being managed.

"We have to make sure that safety is secured for the people working in that area. We truly believe that is incumbent upon us," the chief Cabinet secretary told reporters.

Edano said people living 12 to 20 miles (20 to 30 kilometers) from the plant should still be safe from the radiation as long as they stay indoors. But since supplies are not being delivered to the area fast enough, he said it may be better for residents in the area to voluntarily evacuate to places with better facilities.

"If the current situation is protracted and worsens, then we will not deny the possibility of (mandatory) evacuation," he said.

NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said later that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. was issued a "very strong warning" for safety violations and that a thorough review would be conducted once the situation stabilizes.

Meanwhile, damage to factories was taking its toll on the world's third-largest economy and creating a ripple effect felt worldwide.

Nissan Motor Co. said it may move part of its engine production line to the United States because of damage to a plant.

The quake and tsunami are emerging as the world's most expensive natural disasters on record, wreaking up to $310 billion in damages, the government said.

"There is no doubt that we have immense economic and financial damage," Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said. "It will be our task how to recover from the damage."

At Sendai's port, brand new Toyota cars lay crushed in piles. At the airport, flooded by the tsunami on March 11, U.S. Marines used bulldozers and shovels to shift wrecked cars that lay scattered like discarded toys.

Still, there were examples of resilience, patience and fortitude across the region.

In Soma, a hard-hit town along the Fukushima prefecture coast, rubble covered the block where Hiroshi Suzuki's home once stood. He watched as soldiers dug into mounds of timber had been neighbors' homes in search of bodies. Just three bodies have been pulled out.

"I never expected to have to live through anything like this," he said mournfully. Suzuki is one of Soma's lucky residents, but the tsunami washed away the shop where he sold fish and seaweed.

"My business is gone. I don't think I will ever be able to recover," said Suzuki, 59.

Still, he managed to find a bright side. "The one good thing is the way everyone is pulling together and helping each other. No one is stealing or looting," he said.

"It makes me feel proud to be Japanese."

Top Artists Rally for Japan Earthquake Victims

With Japan still reeling from the earthquake and tsunami that rocked the nation on March 11, top musicians like Lady Gaga, U2, and Nicki Minaj — along with indie icons like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo — are rallying to show their support.

Here's a roundup of available auctions and events, from intimate concerts to rare merchandise like posters and limited-edition vinyl. You can also give directly to the Red Cross, which is raising money for disaster relief. Head here for more information on how to donate.

    Lady Gaga has designed prayer bracelets emblazoned with the words "We Pray for Japan," transcribed in both English and Japanese. The item costs $5, but fans can add an additional donation to a purchase. [Lady Gaga's Official Store]

    U2, Bon Jovi, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Justin Bieber will contribute music to a digital-only benefit album by label Universal, which will raise money for the Japanese Red Cross. The set is expected to be rush-released for this week; a track list has yet to be announced. [Yahoo!]

    Warp Records is selling special-edition T-shirts to raise money for the Red Cross Japan Tsunami Aid Fund. The label is covering manufacturing costs and giving 100-percent of proceeds to charity. [Warp Records]

    Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda has designed two T-shirts that are available through the group's official site, with funds benefitting Music for Relief. The band is also supporting the charity by contributing an unreleased song to the Download to Donate album, which features material from Angels & Airwaves, Counting Crows, Enrique Iglesias, Plain White T's, Slash, and more for a $10 donation.

    Sonic Youth are performing as part of the sold-out Concert to Benefit Japan Earthquake Relief on March 27 at Columbia University in New York. Mike Patton, Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, John Zorn, Cibo Matto and others are also slated to perform.

    Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore will also take part in another benefit show at the Abrons Arts Center" in New York on April 8, alongside Norah Jones, Buke, Gass, and others. In addition to playing shows, the band is auctioning off a pair of rare posters from the early '90s, along with a pair of custom Vans SY shoes. Head here to bid on the items.

    Yo La Tengo have organized a benefit concert on March 23 at Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ, with proceeds from ticket sales going to Peace Winds Fund.

    The Mountain Goats are auctioning off an unreleased song on cassette, with the money going to benefit Doctors Without Borders USA. [eBay]

    Beady Eye, Paul Weller, Richard Ashcroft, Primal Scream, Blur's Graham Coxon, and others will play a London benefit at Brixton O2 Academy on April 3. Proceeds will go to the British Red Cross Japan Tsunami Appeal. Tickets go on sale Friday. [NME]

    Fleet Foxes are auctioning off a vinyl test printing of their single "Helplessness Blues" on eBay. The proceeds for this rare item benefit Global Giving Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund.

    L.A. garage rockers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are auctioning off an autographed cymbal used on their last tour, along with a collection of rare out-of-print vinyl. The bidding is still open at Charity Buzz.

    Norway's Serena Maneesh have released a remix of Lindstrøm & Christabelle's "High & Low" on iTunes, with all proceeds going towards the Japanese Red Cross.

    The Wu-Tang Clan's RZA has released a tribute to earthquake victims titled "Gab-Gotcha 'Japan,'" which is available for free over at Soundcloud.

    If comedians Neil Hamburger and Tim Heidecker can encourage fans to raise $10,000 for the Red Cross, the duo will release a new 10 minute comedy bit for free. [Tiny Mix Tapes]

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Disaster in Japan: Latest developments, March 24

(The Yomiuri Shimbun) According to the Compensation for Nuclear Damages Law, which specifies nuclear power plant operators' accountability when accidents occur, the Japanese government could pay between 120 billion yen and 240 billion yen to compensate farmers and businesses near the embattled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, sources told Japanese newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun. Most likely, the government will pay any portion Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the plant, could not afford financially.

While TEPCO should shoulder primary responsibility for the nuclear accident, the Japanese government will also help victims, said Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshiaki Takaki in a House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting Tue.

(AP) Nissan Motor Co. said Thursday it is considering moving some engine production from Japan to the U.S. because of earthquake damage to a Japanese plant, another illustration of how seriously the disaster has upended the global network of auto supplies. Car factories could face serious shortages of Japanese parts by the middle of next month unless Japan's auto industry can quickly restart its shuttered production following a devastating earthquake and tsunami March 11, experts say.

(AP) As the toll of the thousands of victims weighs on the consciousness of the Japanese people, and the leaking nuclear reactors at Fukushima scare the country into a run on all basic necessities, the many mountains of debris left by the earthquake and tsunami loom as a daunting challenge. More than five years after Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast region is still not close to being done with cleanup. "In Katrina, you had debris that had seawater, sewage, chemicals, gasoline, oil, that was all mixed together in a toxic soup," said David McEntire, a disaster expert at the University of North Texas. "And you're going to have similar problems with the disaster in Japan."

(AP) Some shops across Tokyo began rationing goods - milk, toilet paper, rice and water - as a run on bottled water coupled with delivery disruptions left shelves bare Thursday nearly two weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami. The unusual sights of scarcity in one of the world's richest, most modern capitals came a day after city officials reported that radioactive iodine in Tokyo's tap water measured more than twice the level considered safe for babies.

(Reuters) - Toyko's local government announced radiation has been detected in a vegetable grown in the capital city, according to a Kyodo news agency report cited by Reuters. A green, leafy vegetable with 1.8 times the amount of radioactive cesium was found in Tokyo days after radiation was discovered in plants near the Fukushima nuclear plant 150 miles away.

(AP) - Japan's National Police Agency said 9,811 people died in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, while another 17,541 are listed as missing.

(The New York Times) - The short-term fix that Japanese workers used to fend off a meltdown at the nuclear power plant crippled by the earthquake and tsunami that hit the nation nearly two weeks ago has created a new problem that could lead to the release of radioactive material.

(AP) - At the tsunami-struck Fukushima nuclear plant, three workers were exposed to radioactive elements. Officials said two have been hospitalized but that they were exposed to radiation levels below the maximum allowed for workers trying to prevent the plant's reactors from overheating.

(AP) - Shops in Tokyo rationed water, milk and other goods as a run on products coupled with delivery disruptions left shelves bare Thursday. Demand for bottled water spiked a day after officials reported radioactive iodine in the capital's tap water was more than twice the level considered safe for infants. The government urged calm and ordered a special distribution of bottled water to families with babies under 1. Even as readings showed Tokyo tap water is safe again, reports emerged of elevated levels of cancer-linked iodine in three neighboring prefectures.

(AP) - In Iceland, officials said they have measured trace amounts of radioactive iodine in the air but assured residents it is "less than a millionth" of levels found in European countries in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The U.S., Canada, Australia and Hong Kong had earlier said they were either halting or upgrading controls on Japanese food imports from areas near the plant.

(AP) - The crisis in Japan has prompted outpouring of aid worldwide. More than 19,000 U.S. Marines and sailors, with 20 ships and 140 aircraft, have delivered relief supplies, surveyed ports, conducted aerial searches and surveys and provided support to rescuers. U.S. 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk calls it "the most complex humanitarian mission ever conducted." Even reclusive North Korea says it is helping. State media reports leader Kim Jong Il has sent $500,000 to ethnic Koreans in Japan.

(AP) - Rescuers returned a stranded baby porpoise to the sea after it was found splashing in an inland rice paddy where it was heaved by the tsunami. A passer-by spotted the 3-foot-long finless porpoise Tuesday just over a mile from shore.

Japanese-Americans Band Together To Raise Money For Tsunami Victims

LOS ANGELES — Japanese-Americans, expats and others in the United States opened their hearts and their wallets this week to the victims of Japan's earthquake and tsunami, finding touching and sometimes imaginative ways to donate or raise money for the Asian country's injured and displaced.

Some were motivated by a surge of sympathy, others by friendship or family ties, while many gave out of a need to do something to counter feelings of helplessness.

Sayaka Fukushima said the victims in her native country seemed distressingly far away when she saw coverage of the disasters on TV last week and she was sad not to be able to help them directly.

"I want to do something, but what can I do?" said Fukushima, 26, after making a donation this week at a memorial vigil in Japan's Little Tokyo district.

In San Francisco, meanwhile, Eric Fuji was donating profits from his sushi restaurant to Japan as he awaited word on a missing friend in Sendai.

"We should all be coming together and helping as much as we can," he said.

And in Hawaii, which has the nation's largest Japanese-American population after California, University of Hawaii at Manoa students planned to hold a "candlelight" vigil Friday – using cell phones instead of candles to provide light – to support the people of Japan, where 6,900 people are confirmed dead so far and another 10,700 are missing.

Large-scale fundraising events, along with countless donations by individuals, have been showing some results, with relief organizations having collected more than $87 million as of Thursday, according to a tally by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Doug Erber, president of the Japan America Society of Southern California, said collections are easily outpacing those for the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, which killed more than 6,400.

He attributed the current fundraising success to recent technical innovations, such as those that allow donors to contribute using their cell phones, in addition to the images of widespread destruction seen on TV this time.

"We have footage that Hollywood can only dream of, of devastation that is heartbreaking," he said. "I would compare it to what Americans went through when they watched 9/11."

Not all quake-related activity is aimed only at raising money.

In the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, home to a large Japanese-American community, staff at a Japanese supermarket in the Mitsuwa chain were providing customers with white paper squares to be folded into origami cranes, following a Japanese folk belief that you can make a wish come true by folding a thousand of the paper birds.

Store manager Masato Takai, who hoped to have 1,000 cranes to hang in the store by next week, said his wish was for those harmed in the quake and tsunami to have a speedy recovery.

"I know a lot of people have the same feeling where they wish they could go to Japan and help them directly, but we have families and businesses and can't go there," said Takai, whose market is also soliciting cash donations for quake relief.

Cranes were also being folded with get-well wishes in mind at Somerville Elementary School in New Jersey's Bergen County, which has that state's largest Japanese-American population. Students there have also created a video about the disaster to raise awareness among their peers about the crisis in Japan and collect donations for relief efforts.

Nako Yoshioka of the Japan-US Alliance of New Jersey says that her group was planning a fundraising concert for victims in Japan as well as helping coordinate efforts across the state with other groups wanting to help.

"We're doing donations and fund raising for immediate relief efforts, but we're trying to figure out how we can contribute to rebuilding efforts long term," Yoshioka said.

Back in Los Angeles, community groups were planning a series of fundraising events in Little Tokyo over the weekend, some of which will be staffed by fans of Japanese animation who will collect donations while dressed as their favorite "anime" characters.

Little Tokyo is also the location for a daylong series of concerts Friday. The shows are free, but audience members will be urged to contribute money to the American Red Cross fundraisers who will be on hand.

Japan-born recording artist Hidehito Ikumo, who was performing at the event with his bilingual rock group Layla Lane and serving as the concerts' master of ceremonies, said his first impulse after hearing news of the quake was to offer whatever assistance his musical talents allowed.

"I feel pretty powerless and helpless, but if I just think that way and do nothing, it's not going to help, so I decided to do what I can as an artist," Ikemo said.

Radioactive Water in Japan: Tokyo Watches What It Drinks

Tokyo is not one of those cities where I normally worry about drinking the water. In fact, there's something quite delightful about a country in Asia where I can freely swig from the tap. But this afternoon, as I filled up a glass at my hotel, I hesitated. It wasn't like what I was looking for could be detected. Radioactive isotopes are, as we all know by now, colorless, tasteless and odorless. I put the glass down. Maybe I wasn't that thirsty after all.

On March 23, the Tokyo government announced that the level of radioactivity in the city's water, caused by radioactive iodine emanating from the quake- and tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 149 miles (240 km) to the north, had exceed safe levels for infants. I am not an infant. Nor do I panic easily. But like many Japanese who have been determined not to let trace amounts of radiation get to them, this news spooked me. Indeed, on Thursday, anxious Tokyo citizens cleaned bottled water off shelves, leaving only bottles of expensive Perrier in some stores. (See TIME's exclusive pictures of the devastation in Japan.)

As the Daiichi plant has continued to infect the region's air and water, Tokyo citizens have gone through cycles of alarm and ennui. A few days ago, when government officials announced trace amounts of radiation in milk and vegetables from farms not far from the nuclear plant, people grabbed whatever milk they could find in stores that was produced before the radiation tests ran positive. Dairy disappeared. But now milk and yogurt are easier to find in Tokyo, as officials have assured residents that the dairy they're consuming is safe. (Milk and certain vegetable exports from the affected region near the Daiichi plant have been stopped, easing fears.) The milk run has given way to the water scare.

What's interesting to me about Tokyo's reaction to the radioactivity issue is the level of trust that locals essentially have for their government, even if there is a reflexive unease about radiation given Japan's history as the only nation ever to have been attacked by atomic weapons. Compare Japan to China, where vague rumors of Japanese radioactivity making their way west toward the Middle Kingdom prompted a massive run on iodized salt. Why? Because people thought the iodine in the salt could counteract a radioactive haze. The assumption was wholly incorrect, and the whole scene became even more ridiculous when the iodized salt run in turn sparked a run on noniodized salt. The lesson, though, was this: Chinese people don't trust their government. Therefore, stocking up on whatever remedy they can find is a perfectly natural reaction in a country where citizens believe they must fend for themselves. (See Japan's history of massive earthquakes.)

By contrast, Japanese tend to trust that their health inspectors are doing their job. And when the issue is something as basic as water, eschewing it completely from one's diet is all but impossible. I bet that many of the Japanese drinking bottled water at ramen noodle soup restaurants on Thursday weren't thinking about the fact that the broth they were consuming was probably made with potentially tainted water. In fact, I was halfway through my own bowl of soup when that thought occurred to me. I finished the bowl.

By late Thursday, Tokyo health officials had announced that the amount of radioactive iodine in one major water purification plant had dropped to levels safe even for infants. The run on water in Tokyo will likely soon abate, unless levels spike even higher. (By contrast, the China salt scare took far longer to calm down.) In fact, the general consensus in Tokyo appears to be not only that the government should be trusted on these matters but also that foreigners are making too big a deal out of all this radioactivity stuff. Many Tokyo residents were shocked by how quickly a large expatriate corps fled the capital after the onset of the nuclear crisis. It was wounding for a city that prides itself on hospitality and livability. Now there's a paranoid strain of thought, particularly among some conservative Japanese media, that the outside world is obsessing about each radioactive becquerel as some sneaky way to hurt Japan's image. (See pictures of objects found in the rubble of Japan's quake.)

The problem is that the Japanese government doesn't have a spotless history when it comes to informing the public about potential health risks. Indeed, in some cases, the bureaucracy's reaction has been to deny, deny, deny before finally admitting that maybe something had gone awry. In fact, Prime Minister Naoto Kan made his name in the mid-1990s when he fully exposed the fact that the Health Ministry had covered up the administering of HIV-tainted blood to hemophiliacs. (See more pictures of Japan's earthquake.)

That's not to say the government is fooling people now. Indeed, with the constant tests and calls for vigilance, Tokyo health officials appear to be bending over backward to show the populace that they are monitoring the situation carefully. On Thursday, Tokyo government workers began delivering bottled water to all 80,000 local families with infants, as promised by Kan. About 240,000 bottles were scheduled to be delivered on Thursday, according to Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. The exercise is set to be repeated on Friday. If radiation levels creep back up, then the government may even import bottled water to meet the demand. But who wants to cook with Perrier?

Japan says must review nuclear policy; radiation spreads

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan will have to review its nuclear power policy, its top government spokesman said, as fear of radiation from an earthquake-damaged nuclear complex spread both at home and abroad.

Engineers are trying to stabilize the six-reactor nuclear power station in Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of the capital, two weeks after an earthquake and tsunami battered the plant and devastated northeastern Japan, leaving about 27,400 people dead or missing.

"It is certain that public confidence in nuclear power plants has greatly changed," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told Reuters late on Thursday.

"In light of that, we must first end this situation and then study from a zero base."

Japan's 55 nuclear reactors have been providing about 30 percent of the nation's electric power. The percentage had been expected to rise to 50 percent by 2030, among the highest in the world.

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake on March 11, the tsunami it triggered and the nuclear crisis they caused have brought Japan its darkest days since World War Two.

Explosions in three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power station last week made this the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl and raised fears of a catastrophic meltdown.

While that has not happened, radiation has been leaking and four of the plant's reactors are still volatile.

Engineers from the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), have been making some progress in restoring power and regaining control, but periodic emissions of smoke and steam revive fears of a nuclear nightmare.

"It's still a bit early to make an exact time prognosis, but my guess is in a couple of weeks the reactors will be cool enough to say the crisis is over," said Peter Hosemann, a nuclear expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

"It will still be important to supply sufficient cooling to the reactors and the spent fuel pools for a longer period of time. But as long as this is ensured and we don't see any additional large amount of radioactivity released, I am confident the situation is under control."

Three workers replacing a cable to help cool a reactor were injured by standing in radioactive water. Two were taken to hospital with burns, nuclear safety agency officials said.

On Wednesday, Tokyo's 13 million residents were told not to give tap water to babies after contamination hit twice the safety level this week. But it dropped back to safe levels the next day.

Despite government appeals for people not to panic, many shops saw bottled water supplies flying off the shelves.

"Customers ask us for water. But there's nothing we can do," said Masayoshi Kasahara, a clerk at a Tokyo supermarket. "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 and the Kyodo news agency said radioactive cesium 1.8 times higher than the standard level was found in a leafy vegetable grown at a Tokyo research facility.

Alarm has spread, particularly among Japan's neighbors.


Singapore said on Thursday it had found radioactive contaminants in four samples of vegetables from Japan.

Earlier, it and Australia joined the United States and Hong Kong in restricting food and milk imports from the zone, while Canada became the latest of many nations to tighten screening.

Tiny radiation particles have also spread on the wind and been found as far away as Iceland, although experts say they are not dangerous.

Japan has urged the world not to overreact, and plenty of experts appeared to back that up.

Jim Smith, of Britain's University of Portsmouth, said the finding of 210 becquerels of radioactive iodine, twice the safety limit for children, at a Tokyo water purification plant on Wednesday should not be cause for panic.

The safety level for adults is 300 becquerels.

"The recommendation that infants are not given tap water is a sensible precaution. But it should be emphasized that the limit is set at a low level to ensure that consumption at that level is safe over a fairly long period of time," he said.

The estimated $300 billion damage from the quake and tsunami makes it the world's costliest natural disaster, dwarfing Japan's 1995 Kobe quake and Hurricane Katrina, which swept through New Orleans in 2005.

In Japan's north, more than a quarter of a million people are in shelters. Some elderly displaced people have died from cold and lack of medicines.

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

The official tolls of dead and missing are both revised up every day; police said on Thursday 9,811 people were confirmed dead and 17,541 were missing. Authorities have been burying unidentified bodies in mass graves.

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."

Aftershocks are still jolting the country. Several shook Tokyo on Thursday.

The crisis in the world's third-biggest economy -- and its key position in global supply chains, especially for the automobile and technology sectors -- has added to jitters in global financial markets, also worried by conflict in Libya and Middle East protests.

Toyota Motor Corp, which has suspended production at all of its 12 assembly plants in Japan, said it would slow some North American production because of supply problems although it would try to minimize disruptions.

Baby dolphin saved from Japan rice field

A baby dolphin has been saved after being dumped in a rice field by the tsunami which hit Japans coast earlier this month.

The dolphin was spotted about 2 kilometres away from the coast in a flooded field says Ryo Taira, a pet shop owner who has been rescuing abandoned animals after the huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

"A man passing by said he had found the dolphin in the rice paddy and that we had to do something to save it," Taira told Reuters.

He attempted to net the 1.2 metre dolphin out of the shallow water but ended up wading into the field.

“It was pretty weak by then, which was probably the only reason we could catch it.”

With the help of some friends he got the dolphin back to the ocean as quickly as possible.

Taira says the dolphin appeared to perk up when it was released into the water but he is unsure whether it survived or not.

“But it's certainly a lot better than dying in a rice paddy."

Japanese firemen battle invisible danger

TOKYO (Reuters) – The most difficult thing in a nuclear crisis, the Tokyo firefighter said, was the inability to sense where the danger was.

The Tokyo Fire Department's elite rescue team was among those called in to cool down a nuclear plant north of the capital that was badly damaged by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami and was leaking radiation.

"We usually detect dangers, like fire and smoke, with our eyes, ears and nose, and eliminate some of them, if not all," said Yukio Takayama, a leader of the team.

"At our latest site, we couldn't sense the dangers. It can be very scary if you cannot eliminate dangers for yourselves. As long as you work on the scene, you are constantly in danger, and a sense of fear is with you all the time ... But someone had to do this and that someone was us."

Takayama said he and his men had been tested for radiation exposure after they installed equipment and left the plant and they were all fine.

After the disaster knocked out cooling systems at the Tokyo Electric Power plant in Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, the government scrambled to send in military and firefighters to hose down the reactors and spent fuel pools.

The magnitude 9.0 quake and ensuing tsunami devastated northeastern Japan and left more than 27,000 people dead or missing.

Radiation was released into the air as the plant operator was forced to vent nuclear containment vessels to reduce high pressure building up inside.

Underlining the risk the damaged nuclear plant poses, three Tokyo Electric employees were injured by radiation on Thursday, and two were taken to hospital with burns, Japan's nuclear safety agency said.

"There were no people for us to help on the site. There were no flames to douse. But I believe having given relief to the Japanese people through our activities was a form of a rescue operation," said Takayama, a 54-year-old father of two daughters and a son.

The plant was littered with rubble after a series of explosions, making running water hoses from the nearby coast to the reactor No.3, their target, difficult and time-consuming.

Takayama said he did not know whether the industry minister had threatened to punish rescue workers if they refused to participate in the operation, as reported by some media.

But he added that a final decision in a life-threatening situation like at the Fukushima plant should be left to a leader on the scene.

"We work to fulfill the duties that are given to us. But part of the job of a leader on the scene is to discern what's doable from undoable. You can't give instructions without knowing what's going on the ground."

"As a squad leader I can never tell my men to go in there and die."

Japan earthquake: Mothers at Sendai school receive the dead bodies of their children

Bracing herself for the worst Miyuki Fukuda steps gingerly out into the muddy wasteland that used to be her children's school.

It is two weeks since the tsunami struck but only now is Ookawa Elementary School giving up most of its dead.

Of its 108 pupils, 77 were buried, along with 10 teachers, when water surged over the top of their two-storey building and dumped tonnes of earth on the playground.

That was where the entire group was standing, having followed their well practised response to an earthquake, filing outside and waiting for the danger to pass.

There was a hill 50 yards away, where they would have been safe from a tsunami, but the teachers didn't think a wave could reach two miles inland.

So instead, for 45 minutes, they stood patiently as a 30ft wall of water was rushing up the nearby Kitakamigawa river, and across the rice paddies towards them.

The school's clocks now stand still, frozen at the moment the tsunami hit.

For many days after the disaster the school, perched on the river's scenic south bank under a pine forested hillside near the city of Ishinomaki, was hard to reach. A 50-metre section of the bridge across the river snapped and was washed half a mile upstream. Other roads were washed away.

Only now has heavy digging equipment arrived to help parents in their desperate search.

Mrs Fukuda, 43, reached the scene by wading for miles through water on foot.

Her daughter Risa, 12, and son Masaki, nine, were among the pupils.

When she got there only the skeleton of the semicircular concrete school building was still standing. Nearby, around 100 homes had been washed clean away.

She has roamed the area ever since with other families, looking under tree trunks, smashed cars and blocks of concrete for their missing children.

The body of her daughter was among the first found, but her son remains lost.

"Risa played the piano and she had just started learning English. She loved it," Mrs Fukuda said in tears. "Masaki was in all the school plays. He had a beautiful face. "I told my children if there was ever a tsunami they should go into the hills. But when I got here, they were not there."

According to parents, one teacher, Jinji Endo, who had previous experience of tsunamis, took a single child up into the hills to safety. But the other teachers told the rest of the pupils to stay in the playground.

"If they had all listened to Mr Endo and climbed up the hill they would all have been safe," said Mrs Fukuda. "I think about that a lot. But the teachers died as well so there is no point being angry. I cannot criticise them, what would be the point? No one knew the wave could come this far." Kazutoshi Ogata, 44, and his wife Emi, 38, found the body of their son Ryusei, 10, but there was no sign of their seven-year-old daughter Karen.

Mr Ogata said: "This place looks like a missile or a bomb has hit it. When I first got here I just dug with my hands.

"I found my son's satchel and his calligraphy brushes and that's all I have now. After we found his body I got permission to bury him because the man who does cremations has been killed as well.

"The saddest thing now is waiting for my daughter, but I will wait here and keep looking, as long as it takes."

His wife said: "I wish they had all gone to higher ground. But I think the teachers tried their best to protect the children. Nobody could have expected what happened. It's not their fault."

Nuclear plant shadows future of neighboring towns

TOKYO/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Millions of Tokyoites are worried about radiation in tap water or in the air, but the thousands of people living in the shadow of Japan's stricken nuclear plant have another fear: it may force them to abandon their homes for years, if not forever.

More than 70,000 people have already been evacuated from an area within 20 km (12 miles) of the plant, and another 130,000 are within a zone extending a further 10 km (6 miles) in which residents are recommended to stay indoors. They too could be forced to leave their homes if the evacuation is extended due to worsening radiation levels.

Nobody in government has yet touched on the issue directly, but given growing worries about soil contamination in the largely rural area and bans on shipping and sales of local milk and vegetables, many residents fear the worst.

"Nobody wants to say it out loud, but I think that in their hearts everybody worries that they won't be able to go home for years at least," said Yoichi Azuma, principal of Koriyama Commercial High School, not far west of the 30-km (18-mile) zone, whose gymnasium has been turned into an evacuation center.

"People here have suffered three disasters: the quake, the tsunami and the invisible danger of radiation, which is a man-made disaster. We feel a lot of anger about the last one."

Though some experts say the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, will likely turn out to be less serious than the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, the radioactive substances being emitted are the same -- iodine 131, caesium-134 and caesium-137.

The radioactivity in iodine-131 fully disintegrates in 80 days, but it can find its way rapidly into people through the air and through milk and leafy vegetables, lodging in the thyroid gland, where it can cause DNA damage and raise the risk of cancer, particularly in young children.

Caesium is more troubling as it remains radioactive for over 200 years, threatening people with longer-term exposure through food and from external exposure as it settles on the ground.

"The length of time these areas will remain contaminated depends on the radionuclide composition," said Jim Smith, Reader in Environmental Physics at the University of Portsmouth in southern England.

"If a significant proportion is radiocaesium, food bans and, potentially, evacuation may be long-term."


Food contamination levels in Fukushima, which is known for its peaches, nashi Japanese pears, apples and strawberries as well as milk and vegetables, have risen sharply over the past week, opening up the logical option of extending the exclusion zone.

The United States as early as last week said its citizens should stay out of a broader 50 mile zone, but the Japanese government has not spoken of extension -- a view backed by experts such as Kenji Kamiya, director of the Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine at Hiroshima University.

"We must consider the impact of radiation on human health, but at this point I think the government's decision is correct given the radiation levels," he said.

A Fukushima prefectural official said there are no firm numbers on how many people remain within the 20-30 km radius but added that many appear to have already left voluntarily, whether from worry or just the growing difficulty of life within an area running out of food and other goods. Media reports say some truck drivers, wary of radiation, refuse to enter the zone.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano touched on this on Thursday, noting that "social needs" might have to be dealt with over the longer term.

"But we must be careful not to send the wrong message that danger is getting bigger if we were to issue such a direction (to evacuate)," he said.

In addition, experts said, the practical issues are huge.

"There is a limit to extend the zone because Japan is an island and one thing we have to face is we have to provide shelter, prepare enough housing and schools for these people," said Lam Ching-wan, a chemical pathologist at the University of Hong Kong and member of the American Board on Toxicology.

Some Fukushima towns and cities have laid on buses for citizens who want to leave, in some cases to nearby prefectures.

At present, Azuma's school hosts 150 people ranging in age from infants to 97 years old. Some had homes destroyed by the tsunami, but many were fleeing the radiation.

Some have chronic health issues, such as kidney problems requiring dialysis, and there are several pregnant women. There are enough blankets to go round, and enough food -- barely.

"People really want to go home, but since many of them grow things or are dairy farmers, they're really worried about what might happen and what the experts might say," Azuma said.

"Foreigners might be told to leave a wider area, but all we have is what we have here."

Anxiety in Japan over radiation in tap water

TOKYO – Some shops across Tokyo began rationing goods — milk, toilet paper, rice and water — as a run on bottled water coupled with delivery disruptions left shelves bare Thursday nearly two weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The unusual sights of scarcity in one of the world's richest, most modern capitals came a day after city officials reported that radioactive iodine in Tokyo's tap water measured more than twice the level considered safe for babies.

Radiation has been leaking from a nuclear plant 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo since it was slammed by the March 11 quake and engulfed by the ensuing tsunami. Feverish efforts to get the plant's crucial cooling system back in operation have been beset by explosions, fires and radiation scares.

On Thursday, two workers at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant were treated at a hospital after stepping in contaminated water while laying electrical cables in one unit, nuclear and government officials said. The water seeped over the top of their boots and onto their legs, said Takashi Kurita, spokesman for plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co.

The two workers likely suffered "beta ray burns," Tokyo Electric officials said, citing doctors. They tested at radiation levels between 170 to 180 millisieverts, well below the maximum 250 millisieverts allowed for workers, said Fumio Matsuda, a spokesman for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

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

The developments highlighted the challenges Japan faces after a magnitude-9.0 quake off Sendai triggered a massive tsunami. An estimated 18,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been left homeless as officials scramble to avert a major nuclear crisis.

Radiation has seeped into raw milk, seawater and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips, grown in areas around the plant.

The U.S. and Australia were halting 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 European countries in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

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.

In Tokyo, government spokesman Yukio Edano pleaded for calm, and said the government was considering importing bottled water from other countries to cover any shortages. Officials urged residents to avoid panicked stockpiling, sending workers to distribute 240,000 bottles — enough for three small bottles of water for each of the 80,000 babies under age 1 registered with the city.

That didn't stop Reiko Matsumoto, mother of 5-year-old Reina, from rushing to a nearby store to stock up.

"The first thought was that I need to buy bottles of water," the Tokyo real estate agent said. "I also don't know whether I can let her take a bath."

New readings showed Tokyo tap water was back to safe levels Thursday but the relief was tempered by elevated levels of the cancer-linked isotope in two neighboring prefectures: Chiba and Saitama. A city in a third prefecture, just south of the nuclear 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 feed 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 (120 kilometers) south of the Fukushima plant, city water official Toshifumi Suzuki said. Officials were distributing bottled water, he said.

The limits refer to sustained consumption rates, and officials said parents should stop using tap water for baby formula but that it was no problem for infants to consume small amounts.

Still, shelves were bare in many stores across Tokyo.

Maruetsu supermarket in central Tokyo sought to impose buying limits on specific items to prevent hoarding: only one carton of milk per family, one 5-kilogram bag of rice, one package of toilet paper, one pack of diapers, signs said. 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.

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.

Hardship 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 Fukushima, farmer Sumiko Matsuno went out to her fields and dug up all the vegetables she could — not to sell but to eat.

"If it's in the ground, it's still safe," she said. "The leafy ones are no good anymore. We are digging up all our carrots and onions as fast as we can."

Matsuno, 65, said she was worried about the future.

"If this goes on, it is going to really hurt us."

6.8-magnitude quake strikes NE Myanmar; no tsunami

YANGON, Myanmar – A powerful earthquake struck northeastern Myanmar on Thursday night, shaking buildings as far away as Bangkok. No tsunami was generated.

The quake struck near Myanmar's borders with Thailand and Laos, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) from Chiang Rai. The northern Thai city sustained a little damage, according to Thai television.

There were no immediate reports of damage from the Myanmar side, a remote area where communications, even in the best of times, are difficult. The country's military-controlled government also tightly controls information.

The 6.8-magnitude quake was just six miles (10 kilometers) deep, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. At that strength and depth, it said 600,000 people could feel shaking anywhere from strong to violent. It added that since buildings in the area are considered vulnerable, moderate to very heavy damage could be expected.

Buildings swayed in Bangkok, about 480 miles (770 kilometers) south of the epicenter.

Max Jones, an Australian resident of the Thai capital, was in his 27th-floor apartment when his building started shaking so hard he had to grab the walls to keep from falling.

"It was bloody scary, I can tell you," he said. Jones said he could see people running in the streets.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the quake was located too far inland to create a destructive wave.

Japan toll tops 25,000 dead or missing

THE number of people confirmed dead or listed as missing in Japan surpassed 25,000 yesterday 12 days after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the country's northeast coast.

There are fears of a much higher toll from the disaster, which flattened entire towns along the Pacific coast of northern Honshu island.

The National Police Agency said 9487 people had been confirmed dead and 15,617 officially listed as missing - a total of 25,104 - as of 9pm (AEDT) yesterday as a result of the March 11 catastrophe.

A total of 2755 people have been injured.

The quake has become Japan's deadliest natural disaster since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed more than 142,000 people.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes and have taken shelter in evacuation facilities.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Japan earthquake could cost $309 billion

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami could cost up to $309 billion, making it the most costly disaster in the country since the end of World War II, the Japanese government said Wednesday.

The destruction of homes, businesses and infrastructure could cost between ¥16 trillion and ¥25 trillion, equal to between $185 billion and $309 billion, Japan's Cabinet Office announced Wednesday, according to reports by Kyodo News in Tokyo.

But those estimates did not include the effect of the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power plant and subsequent power outages.

Fears about nuclear radiation escalated Wednesday, as black smoke rose from the third reactor at the Fukushima plant and Tokyo's government said it had detected radioactive material in tap water.

''The most troublesome thing is harmful rumors and the psychological effect (on consumers) as a result of radiation concerns," economic and fiscal policy minister Kaoru Yosano told Kyodo News.

Yosano also said the total effect on the Japanese economy could be offset partially by a boost in activity from reconstruction efforts.

The death toll from the March 11 earthquake and ensuing tsunami is up to 9,408, with another 14,716 people confirmed missing, Japan's National Police Agency said Wednesday.

Major Japanese manufacturers, including Toyota Motor, Honda Motor, Nissan and Sony all shut down factories following the quake. While they have since resumed some operations, much of their business is still offline.

Concern in Tokyo over radiation in tap water

TOKYO – Radiation leaking from Japan's tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant has caused Tokyo's tap water to exceed safety standards for infants to drink, officials said Wednesday, sending anxiety levels soaring over the nation's food and water supply.

Residents cleared store shelves of bottled water after Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said levels of radioactive iodine in tap water were more than twice what is considered safe for babies. Officials begged those in the city to buy only what they needed, saying hoarding could hurt the thousands of people without any water in areas devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

"I've never seen anything like this," clerk Toru Kikutaka said, surveying the downtown Tokyo supermarket where the entire stock of bottled water sold out almost immediately after the news broke, despite a limit of two, two-liter bottles per customer.

The unsettling new development affecting Japan's largest city, home to around 13 million people, added to growing fears over the nation's food supply.

Radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant has seeped into raw milk, seawater and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips, from areas around the plant. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it was halting imports of Japanese dairy and produce from the region near the facility. Hong Kong went further and required that Japan perform safety checks on meat, eggs and seafood before accepting those products.

Officials are still struggling to stabilize the nuclear plant, which on Wednesday belched black smoke from Unit 3 and forced the evacuation of workers, further delaying attempts to make needed repairs. The plant, 140 miles (220 kilometers) north of Tokyo, has been leaking radiation since the quake and tsunami knocked out its crucial cooling systems.

The crisis is emerging as the world's most expensive natural disaster on record, likely to cost up to $309 billion, according to a new government estimate. Police say an estimated 18,000 people were killed.

Concerns about food safety spread Wednesday to Tokyo after officials said tap water showed elevated radiation levels: 210 becquerels of iodine-131 per liter of water — more than twice the recommended limit of 100 becquerels per liter for infants. Another measurement taken later at a different site showed the level was 190 becquerels per liter. The recommended limit for adults is 300 becquerels.

"It is really scary. It is like a vicious negative spiral from the nuclear disaster," said Etsuko Nomura, a mother of two children ages 2 and 5. "We have contaminated milk and vegetables, and now tap water in Tokyo, and I'm wondering what's next."

Infants are particularly vulnerable to radioactive iodine, which can cause thyroid cancer, experts say. The limits refer to sustained consumption rates, and officials urged calm, saying parents should stop giving the tap water to babies, but that it was no problem if the infants already had consumed small amounts.

They said the levels posed no immediate health risk for older children or adults.

"Even if you drink this water for one year, it will not affect people's health," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

Dr. Harold Swartz, a professor of radiology and medicine at Dartmouth Medical School in the U.S., said the radiation amounts being reported in the water are too low to pose any real risk, even to infants who are being fed water-based formula or to breast-fed infants whose mothers drink tap water.

Although the amounts are well above established limits, that doesn't automatically mean there's a health threat, he said.

"We live in a world that has natural background radiation that's many times greater than the amounts we're talking about here," Swartz said.

Still, because it's easy to avoid tap water, it makes sense for Japanese parents with infants to do so, he said.

Radioactive iodine is also short-lived, with a half-life of eight days — the length of time it takes for half of it to break down harmlessly.

Richard Wakeford, a public health radiologist at the University of Manchester in Britain, blamed the spike in radiation on a shift in winds from the nuclear plant toward Tokyo. He predicted lower levels in coming days once the wind shifts back to normal patterns. "I imagine that bottled water is now quite popular in Tokyo," he said.

Tokyo's municipal government said it would distribute 240,000 bottles of water to households with infants. They estimated that there are currently 80,000 babies in the affected area, with each infant getting three bottles of 550 milliliters.

Edano pleaded with shoppers to restrict purchases of bottled water to the bare necessity, urging them to think of tsunami victims in need.

"We have to consider Miyagi, where there is no drinking water at all," he said, referring to a stricken region. "Under these conditions, we would appreciate it if people would avoid buying more water than they need."

The latest data showed sharp increases in radioactivity levels in a range of vegetables. In an area about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of the nuclear plant, levels for one locally grown leafy green called kukitachina measured 82 times the government limit for radioactive cesium and 11 times the limit for iodine.

The death toll from the disaster continued to rise, with more than 9,500 bodies counted and more than 16,000 people listed as missing.

With supplies of fuel and ice dwindling, officials have abandoned the traditional practice of cremation in favor of quick, simple burials. Some are interred in bare plywood caskets and others in blue plastic tarps, with no time to build proper coffins. The bodies will be dug up and cremated once crematoriums catch up with the glut, officials assured families.

In Higashimatsushima in Miyagi prefecture, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, soldiers lowered plywood coffins into the ground, saluting each casket.

Some relatives placed flowers on the graves. Most remained stoic, folding hands in prayer. Two young girls wept inconsolably, hugged tightly by their father.

"I hope their spirits will rest in peace here at this temporary place," said mourner Katsuko Oguni, 42.

Masaru Yamagata, a Higashimatsushima official, said the crematorium cannot keep up with demand.

"Giving the grieving families coffins is the most we can do right now," Yamagata said. "Every day, more dead bodies are found, and we need more coffins quickly."

Hundreds of thousands remained homeless, squeezed into temporary shelters without heat, warm food or medicine and no idea what to call home after the colossal wave swallowed up communities along the coast.

The tsunami also heavily damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility, with explosions and fires in four of the plant's six reactors sending radioactive steam into the air.

Progress in cooling down the troubled plant has been intermittent, disrupted by rises in radiation, elevated pressure in reactors and overheated storage pools.

The plant's operator had restored circuitry to bring power to all six units and turned on lights at Unit 3 late Tuesday for the first time since the disaster — a significant step toward restarting the cooling system.

It had hoped to restore power to cooling pumps at the unit within days, but experts warned the work included the risk of sparking fires as electricity is restored through equipment potentially damaged in the tsunami.

And then on Wednesday, black smoke suddenly billowed from Unit 3, prompting another evacuation of workers from the plant in the afternoon, Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials said. They said there had been no corresponding spike in radiation at the plant.

Hidehiko Nishiyama of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said officials did not know the reason for the smoke.

Tokyo Electric manager Teruaki Kobayashi said the pump for Unit 3 had been tested and was working Wednesday. But officials weren't sure when they would be able to turn the power on to the pump.

Nuclear agency official Kenji Kawasaki said workers would not be allowed to return to the plant until Thursday morning, since smoke was still rising as of late Wednesday night.

As a precaution, officials have evacuated residents within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the plant and advised those up to 19 miles (30 kilometers) away to stay indoors to minimize exposure.

And for the first time, Edano, the chief Cabinet secretary, suggested that those downwind of the plant should stay indoors with the windows shut tight — even if just outside the zone.

Japan disaster likely to be world's costliest

TOKYO – Japan's government said the cost of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast could reach $309 billion, making it the world's most expensive natural disaster on record.

The extensive damage to housing, roads, utilities and businesses across seven prefectures has resulted in direct losses of between 16 trillion yen ($198 billion) and 25 trillion yen ($309 billion), according to a Cabinet Office estimate Wednesday.

The losses figure is considerably higher than other estimates. The World Bank on Monday said damage might reach $235 billion. Investment bank Goldman Sachs had estimated quake damage would be as much as $200 billion.

If the government's projection proves correct, it would top the losses from Hurricane Katrina. The 2005 megastorm that ravaged New Orleans and the surrounding region cost $125 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Japan's estimate does not include the impact of power shortages triggered by damage to a nuclear power plant, so the overall economic impact could be even higher. It also leaves out potential global repercussions.

"The aftermath of the tragic events in Japan will obviously alter the domestic economy," said Takuji Aida, an economist at UBS Securities Japan, in a report. "However, Japan's position in the global economy is such that there must also be some transmission of the shock to other parts of the world."

The Cabinet Office suggested, however, that the economic hit could be softened by the expected upswing in public works and construction as the region rebuilds.

The 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami on March 11 laid waste to Japan's northeastern coast, killing thousands of people and triggering a crisis at a nuclear power plant. Tens of thousands of people living near the plant were evacuated.

Utilities have imposed power rationing, many factories remain closed and key rail lines are impassable.

Toyota Motor Corp., the world's No. 1 automaker, has halted auto production since March 14 because of difficulty securing components, including rubber parts and electronics. By Sunday its lost production will reach 140,000 cars.

The company said Wednesday it will delay the launch of the Prius hybrid minivan in Japan due to disruptions in parts supplies.

Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco said the automaker initially planned to roll out the Prius minivan in April. But the disaster has crippled suppliers and destroyed shops, forcing Toyota to postpone the launch.

Another Cabinet Office economic report released Wednesday underscored the new challenges facing Japan, which had been on the mend from a lull in growth late last year.

"The economy is moving toward recovery, but its self-sustainability is weak," it said.

More broadly, the Japanese economy has been lackluster for two decades, barely managing to eke out weak growth between slowdowns. It lost its position as world's No. 2 economy to China last year and is saddled with a massive public debt that, at 200 percent of GDP, is the biggest among industrialized nations.

The government plans to introduce a supplementary budget to tackle reconstruction, though Cabinet members have said additional budgets will probably be needed down the road.

Speaking to the upper house budget committee Tuesday, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said the country's deteriorating public finances will not deter the government from reconstruction spending, according to Kyodo news agency.

Cabinet Office spokesman Noriyuki Shikata expressed confidence that the country could handle the massive task that lies ahead.

"This is not something that the Japanese economy cannot overcome," he told reporters Wednesday.

The government also reportedly plans to inject public money into banks to help support lending as companies rebuild. It may finance that from a fund of 11 trillion yen ($135 billion) that is still available under a law on emergency support to banks passed after the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Power lines up in progress at Japan nuclear plant

FUKUSHIMA, Japan – Workers at a leaking nuclear complex hooked up power lines to all six of its reactor units, but other repercussions from a massive earthquake and tsunami still rippled across Japan as economic losses mounted at three flagship companies.

The progress on the electrical lines at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was a welcome and significant advance Tuesday after days of setbacks. With the power lines connected, officials hope to start up the overheated plant's crucial cooling system that was knocked out during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's northeast coast.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. warned that workers still need to check all equipment for damage first before switching the cooling system on to all the reactor units — a process that could take days or even weeks.

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 planned to try to power up the unit's water pumps later Wednesday.

Emergency crews also dumped 18 tons of seawater into a nearly boiling storage pool holding spent nuclear fuel at Unit 2, cooling it to 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius), Japan's nuclear safety agency said. Steam, possibly carrying radioactive elements, had been rising for two days from the reactor building, and the move lessens the chances that more radiation will seep into the air.

Added up, the power lines and concerted dousing bring authorities closer to ending a nuclear crisis that has complicated the government's response to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that killed an estimated 18,000 people.

Its power supply knocked out by the disasters, the 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. 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.

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.

The crisis continued to batter Japan's once-robust economy.

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 9,099. An additional 13,786 people have been listed as missing, though there may be some overlap on those two lists.

"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, the government's public point-man, said Tuesday in his latest attempt to try to soothe anxieties.

Still, tensions were running high. Officials in the town of Kawamata, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) away from the reactors, brought in a radiation specialist from Nagasaki — site of an atomic bombing during World War II — to calm residents' fears.

"I want to tell you that you are safe. You don't need to worry," Dr. Noboru Takamura told hundreds of residents at a community meeting. "The levels of radiation here are clearly not high enough to cause damage to your health."

But worried community members peppered him with questions: "What will happen to us if it takes three years to shut down the reactors?" "Is our milk safe to drink?" "If the schools are opened, will it be safe for kids to play outside for gym class?"

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."

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.

Radiation levels have 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, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said.

Tokyo Electric and experts said still more time is needed to replace damaged equipment and vent any volatile gas to make sure the restored electricity does not spark an explosion.

"You're going to get fires now as they energize equipment," said Arnold Gundersen, the chief engineer at the U.S.-based environmental consulting company Fairewinds Associates. "It's going to be a long slog."

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said that monitors have detected radiation 1,600 times higher than normal levels — but in an area about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the power station, at about the perimeter of the evacuation area declared by the government last week.

Radiation at that level, while not high for a single burst, could harm health if sustained. If such levels were projected to last three days, U.S. authorities would order an evacuation as a precaution.

The levels drop dramatically the farther you go from the nuclear complex. In Tokyo, about 140 miles (220 kilometers) south of the plant, levels in recent days have been higher than normal for the city but still only a third of the global average for naturally occurring background radiation.

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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Japan Death Toll Estimate Rises Over 18,000, Rebuilding May Cost $235 Billion

FUKUSHIMA, Japan — The toll of Japan's triple disaster came into clearer focus Monday after police estimates showed more than 18,000 people died, the World Bank said rebuilding may cost $235 billion and more cases of radiation-tainted vegetables and tap water turned up.

Japanese officials reported progress over the weekend in their battle to gain control over a nuclear complex that began leaking radiation after suffering quake and tsunami damage, though the crisis was far from over, with a dangerous new surge in pressure reported in one of the plant's six reactors.

The announcement by Japan's Health Ministry late Sunday that tests had detected excess amounts of radioactive elements on canola and chrysanthemum greens marked a low moment in a day that had been peppered with bits of positive news: First, a teenager and his grandmother were found alive nine days after being trapped in their earthquake-shattered home. Then, the operator of the overheated nuclear plant said two of the six reactor units were safely cooled down.

"We consider that now we have come to a situation where we are very close to getting the situation under control," Deputy Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama said.

Still, serious problems remained at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex. Pressure unexpectedly rose in a third unit's reactor, meaning plant operators may need to deliberately release radioactive steam. That has only added to public anxiety over radiation that began leaking from the plant after a monstrous earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan on March 11 and left the plant unstable. As day broke Monday, Japan's military resumed dousing of the complex's troubled Unit 4.

The World Bank said in report Monday that Japan may need five years to rebuild from the catastrophic disasters, which caused up to $235 billion in damage, saying the cost to private insurers will be up to $33 billion and that the government will spend $12 billion on reconstruction in the current national budget and much more later.

The safety of food and water was of particular concern. The government halted shipments of spinach from one area and raw milk from another near the nuclear plant after tests found iodine exceeded safety limits. Tokyo's tap water, where iodine turned up Friday, now has cesium. Rain and dust are also tainted.

Early Monday , the Health Ministry advised Iitate, a village of 6,000 people about 30 kilometers (19 miles) northwest of the Fukushima plant, not to drink tap water due to elevated levels of iodine. Ministry spokesman Takayuki Matsuda said iodine three times the normal level was detected there – about one twenty-sixth of the level of a chest X-ray in one liter of water.

In all cases, the government said the radiation levels were too small to pose an immediate health risk.

But Tsugumi Hasegawa was skeptical as she cared for her 4-year-old daughter at a shelter in a gymnasium crammed with 1,400 people about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the plant.

"I still have no idea what the numbers they are giving about radiation levels mean. It's all so confusing," said Hasegawa, 29, from the small town of Futuba in the shadow of the nuclear complex. "And I wonder if they aren't playing down the dangers to keep us from panicking. I don't know who to trust."

All six of the nuclear complex's reactor units saw trouble after the disasters knocked out cooling systems. In a small advance, the plant's operator declared Units 5 and 6 – the least troublesome – under control after their nuclear fuel storage pools cooled to safe levels. Progress was made to reconnect two other units to the electric grid and in pumping seawater to cool another reactor and replenish it and a sixth reactor's storage pools.

But the buildup in pressure inside the vessel holding Unit 3's reactor presented some danger, forcing officials to consider venting. The tactic produced explosions of radioactive gas during the early days of the crisis.

"Even if certain things go smoothly, there would be twists and turns," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters. "At the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough."

Growing concerns about radiation add to the overwhelming chain of disasters Japan has struggled with since the 9.0-magnitude quake. The resulting tsunami ravaged the northeastern coast. All told, police estimates show more than about 18,400 died. More than 15,000 deaths are likely in Miyagi, the prefecture that took the full impact of the wave, said a police spokesman.

"It is very distressing as we recover more bodies day by days," said Hitoshi Sugawara, the spokesman.

Police in other parts of the disaster area declined to provide estimates, but confirmed about 3,400 deaths. Nationwide, official figures show the disasters killing more than 8,600 people, and leaving more than 13,200 people missing, but those two lists may have some overlap.

The disasters have displaced another 452,000, who are living in shelters.

Fuel, food and water remain scarce. The government in recent days acknowledged being caught ill-prepared by an enormous disaster that the prime minister has called the worst crisis since World War II.

Bodies are piling up in some of the devastated communities and badly decomposing even amid chilly rain and snow.

"The recent bodies – we can't show them to the families. The faces have been purple, which means they are starting to decompose," says Shuji Horaguchi, a disaster relief official setting up a center to process the dead in Natori, on the outskirts of the tsunami-flattened city of Sendai. "Some we're finding now have been in the water for a long time, they're not in good shape. Crabs and fish have eaten parts."

Contamination of food and water compounds the government's difficulties, heightening the broader public's sense of dread about safety. Consumers in markets snapped up bottled water, shunned spinach from Ibaraki – the prefecture where the tainted spinach was found – and overall expressed concern about food safety.

Experts have said the amounts of iodine detected in milk, spinach and water pose no discernible risks to public health unless consumed in enormous quantities over a long time. Iodine breaks down quickly, after eight days, minimizing its harmfulness, unlike other radioactive isotopes such as cesium-137 or uranium-238, which remain in the environment for decades or longer.

High levels of iodine are linked to thyroid cancer, one of the least deadly cancers if treated. Cesium is a longer-lasting element that affects the whole body and raises cancer risk.

Rain forecast for the Fukushima area also could further localize the contamination, bringing the radiation to the ground closer to the plant.

Edano tried to reassure the public for a second day in a row. "If you eat it once, or twice, or even for several days, it's not just that it's not an immediate threat to health, it's that even in the future it is not a risk," Edano said. "Experts say there is no threat to human health."

No contamination has been reported in Japan's main food export – seafood – worth about $1.6 billion a year and less than 0.3 percent of its total exports.

Amid the anxiety, there were moments of joy on Sunday. An 80-year-old woman and her teenage grandson were rescued from their flattened two-story house after nine days, when the teen pulled himself to the roof and shouted to police for help.

Other survivors enjoyed smaller victories. Kiyoshi Hiratsuka and his family managed to pull his beloved Harley Davidson motorcycle from the rubble in their hometown of Onagawa. The 37-year-old mechanic said he knows it will never work anymore. "But I want to keep it as a memorial."