Sunday, April 24, 2011

Japan to launch massive search for quake bodies

Japan will send nearly 25,000 soldiers backed by boats and aircraft into its disaster zone Monday on an intensive land-and-sea mission to recover the bodies of those killed by last month's earthquake and tsunami, the military said.

Agriculture officials also plan to send a team of veterinarians into the evacuation zone around a stricken nuclear plant to check on hundreds of thousands of abandoned cows, pigs and chickens, many of which are believed to have died of starvation and neglect. The government is considering euthanizing some of the dying animals, officials said.

About 14,300 people have been confirmed dead so far in the catastrophic March 11 tsunami and earthquake. Another 12,000 remain missing and are presumed killed. Some of their bodies were likely swept out to sea, while others were buried under the mass of rubble.

Cleanup crews have discovered some remains as they gingerly removed rotting debris to clear the area for rebuilding.

But the two-day military search operation will be far more extensive, Defense Ministry spokesman Ippo Maeyama said Sunday.

"We will do our utmost to recover bodies for bereaved families," he said.

A total of 24,800 soldiers will scour the rubble, backed by 90 helicopters and planes, he said. Another 50 boats, along with 100 navy divers, will search the waters up to 20 kilometers off the coast, he said. Police, coast guard and U.S. troops will also take part.

"It's been very difficult and challenging to find bodies because the areas hit by tsunami are so widespread," he said. "Many bodies also have been swept away by the tsunami."

The operation will be the third intensive military search for bodies since the disaster last month. With the waters receding, Maeyama hopes the teams will have more success.

The search was complicated by the decomposition of some of the corpses, he said. Some had already turned into skeletons.

"You have to be very careful in touching the bodies because they quickly disintegrate. We cannot tell the bodies' gender anymore, let alone their age," he said.

The searches will continue, however, "as long as families want us to look for their loved ones," Maeyama said.

Meanwhile, the government in the Fukushima prefecture will send a team of six veterinarians into the 12-mile (20-kilometer) evacuation zone around the radiation-leaking Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to survey the livestock there.

Farmers in the area were estimated to have left 3,000 cows, 130,000 pigs and 680,000 chickens behind when they hurriedly fled the area last month when the nuclear crisis started.

With no time for burials, veterinarians who find dead livestock will spray lime over them to prevent them from spreading disease, agricultural officials said.

The government is also considering euthanizing dying animals, but only after getting permission from their owners, said Yutaka Kashimura, an agricultural official in Fukushima.

"Killing animals is the very last resort," he said.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Japan earmarks first $50 billion for post-quake rebuild

Japan's cabinet approved on Friday almost $50 billion of spending for post-earthquake rebuilding, a downpayment on the country's biggest public works effort in six decades.

The emergency budget of 4 trillion yen ($48.5 billion), which is likely be followed by more reconstruction spending packages, is still dwarfed by the overall cost of damages caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, estimated at $300 billion.

"With this budget, we are taking one step forward toward reconstruction ... and toward restarting the economy," Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

Unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan, under fire for his handling of the crisis, said Japan would have to issue fresh government bonds to fund extra budgets to come, and suggested he would stay on to oversee the process.

"I feel it was my destiny to be prime minister when the disasters and nuclear accident took place," Kan told a news conference.

"I want to work for reconstruction and rebuilding, and present an outline to overcome these two crises. To have that vision in sight is my heartfelt desire as a politician."

Financing the next packages will be much tougher, as they are likely to involve a mix of taxes as well as borrowing in the bond market, which could strain Japan's debt-laden economy.

If Kan is unable to steer those laws through parliament, he may be forced to step down, analysts say.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 15-meter (50-ft) tsunami that followed caused Japan's gravest crisis since World War Two, killing up to 28,000 people and destroying tens of thousands of homes.

It also smashed a nuclear power plant which began leaking radiation, a situation the plant's operator says could take all year to bring under control.

The budget will be submitted to parliament next week and is expected to be enacted in May.


Prime Minister Kan, who has been accused by opposition politicians, his own party and quake survivors of failing to take command of the response to the triple disaster, has said the need to rebuild is an opportunity for national "rebirth."

A Jiji news agency opinion poll showed Kan's support rate stood at 20.5 percent, up a scant 1.6 points from the previous month, with more than three out of four voters saying he had exercised little or no leadership over the nuclear crisis.

About 57 percent said they were supportive of a tax rise to finance reconstruction compared with 38.6 percent who were not.

In a Reuters poll of retail investors released on Friday, 83 percent of those surveyed said they disapproved or strongly disapproved of the administration's handling of the crisis.

As well as trying to rebuild the ruined northeast of the country, Japan also has to contend with the world's worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the wrecking of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 240 km (150 miles) from Tokyo.

Radiation spilled out from the facility after a hydrogen explosion, and in their battle to cool melting fuel rods, engineers pumped radioactive water into the Pacific, a move that worried Japan's neighbors about the spread of contamination.

Masataka Shimizu, the much-criticised president of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), visited an evacuation center for the first time since the disaster struck, kneeling and bowing deeply to the evacuees.

"I want to work hard so that you can go home," he said. Mostly subdued evacuees pleaded with him to bring the crisis to an end so they could go home. "I want you to act as if it had happened to your own family," said one man.

Earlier, dressed in blue work clothes, Shimizu apologized to Fukushima's regional governor, Yuhei Sato.

"I apologize from the bottom of my heart for the great trouble caused to many people in society," he said.

Shimizu's company has been accused of downplaying the dangers and ignoring warnings about the risk of a quake and tsunami striking the plant, as well as reacting poorly to the damage.

Japan said this week it would ban anyone entering a 20-km (12-mile) evacuation zone around the plant.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Japan Quake Caused Surprisingly Severe Soil Collapse

The scale of Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami wasn't the only thing that surprised geologists.

The 9.0 earthquake in Japan — the fourth most powerful quake ever recorded — also caused an unusually severe and widespread shift in soil through liquefaction, a new study suggests.

Near coastlines, harbors and rivers, earthquakes can make the wet, sandy soil jiggle, turning it temporarily from a solid to a liquid state, a process known as liquefaction. Heavy sand and rock sinks, while water and lighter sand bubble to the surface. The slurry spreads, often toward the water, and the surface shifts.

Japan's liquefaction occurred over hundreds of miles, surprising even experienced engineers who are accustomed to seeing disaster sites, including from the recent earthquakes in Chile and New Zealand.

Other areas vulnerable

The study raises questions about whether existing building codes in other vulnerable locations can enable structures to withstand massive liquefaction, including in areas of Oregon, Washington and California.

"We've seen localized examples of soil liquefaction as extreme as this before, but the distance and extent of damage in Japan were unusually severe," said Scott Ashford, a study team member from Oregon State University.

"Entire structures were tilted and sinking into the sediments, even while they remained intact," said Ashford, who is based in Corvallis, Ore. "The shifts in soil destroyed water, sewer and gas pipelines, crippling the utilities and infrastructure these communities need to function. We saw some places that sank as much as 4 feet," or 1.2 meters.

Long-lasting quake

The duration of the Japanese earthquake, about five minutes, could be the key to the severity of the liquefaction and may force researchers to reconsider the extent of liquefaction damage possible.

"With such a long-lasting earthquake, we saw how structures that might have been okay after 30 seconds just continued to sink and tilt as the shaking continued for several more minutes," Ashford said. "And it was clear that younger sediments, and especially areas built on recently filled ground, are much more vulnerable."

An event almost exactly like Japan's is expected in the Pacific Northwest from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and the new findings make it clear that liquefaction will be a critical issue in the young soils there.

"Young" sediments, in geologic terms, are those deposited within the past 10,000 years or so. In Oregon, for instance, that describes much of downtown Portland, the Portland International Airport, nearby industrial facilities and other cities and parts of the Willamette Valley.

About 1,100 bridges in Oregon are at risk from an earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Fewer than 15 percent of them have been retrofitted to prevent collapse.

Some damage may be reduced or prevented by different construction techniques or retrofitting, Ashford said. But another reasonable goal is to at least anticipate the damage — to know what will probably be destroyed, make contingency plans for what will be needed to implement repairs, and design ways to help protect and care for residents until services can be restored, the researchers say.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Japan disaster death toll nears 14,000

Tokyo (CNN) -- The death toll from Japan's earthquake and tsunami rose to nearly 14,000 on Monday as efforts continued to stabilize a crippled nuclear reactor plant.

Another 14,030 people are missing, according to Japan's National Police Agency. Police and soldiers still are combing the ruins of coastal villages in search of more bodies.

The March 11 magnitude 9.0-earthquake and the tsunami it spawned have killed 13,843 and displaced more than 136,000 people, police said Monday.

The tsunami also caused an ongoing crisis at a nuclear power plant that workers continue to fight.

On Monday, safety officials said that remote-controlled robots and the workers controlling them have recorded high levels of radiation inside and around two reactor buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northern Japan. The tsunami damaged the plant's cooling systems, unnerving hundreds of thousands of people.

The U.S.-built robot probes measured radiation doses as high as 57 millisieverts inside the housing for reactor No. 3 and up to 49 millisieverts inside the No. 1 reactor building, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency reported.

Levels found between the double doors of the airlocks of the reactor buildings were much higher -- 270 millisieverts in the case of reactor No. 1 and 170 millsieverts in No. 3, the agency said.

By comparison, the average resident of an industrialized country receives a dose of about 3 millisieverts per year. Emergency standards for plant workers battling the month-old nuclear disaster limit their annual exposure to 250 millisieverts, while a CT scan produces just under 7 and a chest X-ray delivers a one-time dose of about .05 millisieverts.

Doses above 100 millisieverts can increase the long-term risk of cancer, while 1,000 millisieverts can produce radiation sickness.

There was no immediate explanation for the much-higher radiation levels recorded in the airlocks, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, the safety agency's chief spokesman.

The robots were inserted Sunday in an attempt to determine the conditions inside the No. 1 and 3 reactor buildings, which were blown apart in massive hydrogen explosions in the first days of the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The cooling systems for Fukushima Daiichi reactors 1-3 were knocked out by the tsunami that struck northern Japan, causing the reactor cores to overheat, spewing huge amounts of radioactive contamination across the surrounding area.

Nishiyama said running the "Packbots" in reactor No. 3 was difficult because of the amount of debris scattered around the building, but engineers found the building was dry and the temperatures were normal. In unit 1, the robot found a high level of humidity, the explanation for which was not known Monday night.

The robots were inserted the same day that the plant's owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., announced a six- to nine-month plan to restore normal cooling systems and shut down the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. Japan's government has designated the situation a top-scale nuclear disaster.

Nishiyama said he did not know whether the data recorded Sunday would affect the timetable laid out by Tokyo Electric, which had been under pressure to lay out a timetable to resolve the crisis.

No data has yet been reported from the No. 2 reactor, which is believed to be leaking an undetermined portion of the 6-7 cubic meters (1,600-1,800 gallons) of fresh water being pumped into it every day. The plan laid out Sunday would bring an end to that improvised solution, which has left workers scrambling to find places to contain the vast amounts of contaminated water that have flooded the basements of the units.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, Japan's government took a step toward slowing what critics have called a revolving door between the nuclear industry and the ministry that regulates it. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the government is urging officials of the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry to stop taking jobs with companies that run nuclear plants upon retirement.

"I have consulted with METI and decided to request that government officials to voluntarily refrain from seeking re-employment at electricity companies, and asked electricity companies for their cooperation," Edano told reporters. But he said the ruling Democratic Party of Japan lacks the votes in parliament to make his call a law at this point.

Critics say the practice -- known in Japanese as amakudari, or "descent from heaven" -- creates cozy ties between the government and the nuclear industry at the expense of the public interest. Edano's declaration was "a necessary step but it's not enough," said Tetsunari Iida, a former nuclear engineer who now runs an alternative energy think-tank.

Tokyo Electric is one of the companies that has come under fire for the practice. Company spokesman Hiro Hasegawa told CNN that the company tries to keep some "distance" between itself and the government, but added, "The nuclear industry is a group of specialists. We cannot deny there is close communication."

And Eisaku Sato, a former governor of Fukushima prefecture and a longtime critic of Japan's largest utility, said the nuclear safety agency should be independent and the government needs "to create a sense of safety built on trust."

"This is a test of Japanese democracy," said Sato, who has been battling corruption charges he says are retribution for his criticism of the industry. "We must make a flawless framework for operating Japan's nuclear power plants, one that the people of the world can feel safe about."

Sato told reporters Monday that Tokyo Electric missed a warning signal at the plant less than a year ago. He said emergency generators failed to start when a power failure in June 2010 cut off cooling systems at reactor No. 2, forcing workers to start the diesel-powered backups manually.

Hasegawa disputed that account, telling CNN that emergency generators kicked in automatically and the reactor shut down. Water levels dropped in the reactor for a brief period, forcing the company to declare the incident to the government, but he said no radiation was released.

An investigation later determined that power was cut off by accident when workers for a subcontractor were installing temperature gauges in a cramped space. No disciplinary actions were taken against anyone at the plant, Hasegawa said.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Powerful aftershock hits Japan on 1 month anniversary of fourth largest quake

One month ago the fourth largest earthquake in the world since 1900 struck Japan bringing death and destruction to the nation.  Today the country was rocked by a significant aftershock and more evacuations around a stricken nuclear power plant were ordered.

At 5:16pm local time (8:16 UTC) a magnitude 6.6 temblor struck on Japan’s mainland 22 miles from Iwaki in the Fukushima prefecture.  The quake was felt across the island of Honshu including 100 miles away in Tokyo and at the severely damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant to the north.

Landslides in the city of Iwaki brought on by the aftershock have trapped several people in three houses that were buried officials said.  Fires were burning in some parts of northeastern Japan and power was knocked out to 220,000 homes and businesses.

Immediately following the aftershock Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) ordered the workers at the power plant to evacuate to safer areas.  Power was briefly cut to the stricken plant but soon restored. 

Today’s aftershock follows on a more significant magnitude 7.4 aftershock last week.  Hundreds of smaller aftershocks have struck the region since last month’s magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami.

Officials recommend more evacuations to escape radiation threat

The Japanese government announced today that it was recommending that more residents in the area of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex evacuate due to the potential for long term health threats.  The new evacuations include the towns of Katsuo, Kawamata, Namie, Iitate and parts of Minami Soma.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said, "This policy does not require immediate evacuation right away, but we take the long-term perspective, considering the long-term effect of radiation on your health.”

A 12 1/2 mile (20km) radius total evacuation zone has already been established around the failed nuclear power plant.  Residents living from 12 1/2 miles to 18 1/2 miles (30km) from the plant have been ordered to stay inside.

Death toll continues to climb

The death toll from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami continues to climb.  The latest numbers from the National Police Agency of Japan report 13,130 have been confirmed killed.  An additional 13,718 are still missing and are largely expected to not be found and added to the death toll.

Rebuilding of the nation, particularly along the coastal regions where the tsunami sent a wall of water far inland, will be a long and difficult task.  More than 48,00 structures were totally destroyed by the quake and tsunami and an additional 152,000 were damaged. 

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake now ranks as the fourth largest in the world since 1900 and the most powerful to strike Japan since instrumented readings began.  It is likely that when the final death toll is realized the event will be Japan's fourth deadliest quake in history.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Death toll in Japan quake, tsunami tops 12,000

The death toll from the recent 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami in has surpassed 12,000, while nearly 15,500 remain unaccounted for, the Kyodo news agency reported on Sunday.

The twin disaster that hit Japan on March 11 also triggered a number of explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which caused several radioactive leaks.

Over 165,000 people have been evacuated from the disaster zone and accommodated in temporary refuge centers across the country, while tens of thousands more still do not have electricity or running water.

The Japanese government has said the damage from the disaster could total $310 billion.

Meanwhile, Russian emergencies services said on Sunday that radiation levels are within the norm in Russia's Far East and the danger of radioactive pollution in the region following the nuclear crisis at Fukushima is unlikely.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Japanese, US military search for tsunami victims

SENDAI, Japan — Japanese and U.S. military ships and helicopters trolled Japan's tsunami-ravaged coastline looking for bodies Friday, part of an all-out search that could be the last chance to find those swept out to sea nearly three weeks ago.

More than 16,000 are still missing after the disaster, which officials fear may have killed some 25,000 people. The 9.0-earthquake and tsunami also ravaged a nuclear plant that continues to leak radiation despite frantic efforts to control it.

Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan sounded a resolute note Friday, promising to win the battle against the overheating plant even as atomic safety officials raised questions about the accuracy of radiation measurements there. Residents have been evacuated from around the plant.

On the outskirts of Sendai, near the Japanese military's Kasuminome air base, a constant stream of helicopters roared overhead throughout the afternoon, shuttling to and from the more remote coastal regions. Planes and boats were dispatched from other bases near the city.

Altogether, 25,000 soldiers, 120 helicopters, and 65 ships will continue searching through Sunday. If U.S. forces spot bodies, they will point them out to the Japanese military rather than trying to retrieve them. So far, more than 11,700 deaths have been confirmed.

"Unfortunately we've come across remains over the scope of our mission, so it may be more likely than you think," to find bodies at sea so long after the disaster, said U.S. Navy Lt. Anthony Falvo.

Some may have sunk and just now be resurfacing. Others may never be found. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 37,000 of the 164,000 people who died in Indonesia simply disappeared, their bodies presumably washed out to sea.

The Japanese military stopped short of saying the search would end for good after Sunday, but public affairs official Yoshiyuki Kotake said activities will be limited. The search includes places that were submerged or remain underwater, along with the mouths of major rivers and the ocean as far as 12 miles (20 kilometers) from shore.

Police officers have also been searching for bodies in decimated towns inland, but in some cases their efforts have been complicated or even stymied by dangerous levels of radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.

People who live within 12 miles (20 kilometers) have been forced to leave, though residents are growing increasingly frustrated and have been sneaking back to check on their homes. Government officials warned Friday that there are no plans to lift the evacuation order anytime soon.

"I don't think the evacuation zones make any sense," said Tadayuki Matsumoto, a 46-year-old construction worker who lives in a zone 15 miles (25 kilometers) away where residents have been advised to stay indoors. "They don't seem to have thought it out and are making things up as they go along."

Radiation concerns have rattled the Japanese public, already struggling to return to normal life after the earthquake-borne tsunami pulverized hundreds of miles (kilometers) of the northeastern coast. Three weeks after the disaster in one of the most connected countries in the world, 260,000 households still do not have running water and 170,000 do not have electricity.

Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna told reporters on Friday that the U.N. nuclear watchdog was sending two reactor specialists to Japan to get firsthand information. They will meet experts in Tokyo and may go to the Fukushima site.

"The overall situation is basically unchanged," senior official Denis Flory told reporters. "It is still very serious."

In a positive turn, an IAEA official also said Friday that radiation levels at one village outside the exclusion zone were improving.

Elena Buglova said 10 samples taken at Iitate — about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Fukushima nuclear complex — show that radiation levels are decreasing. Earlier in the week they were substantially higher than levels at which it would recommend evacuations.

Japan's nuclear safety agency on Friday ordered plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. to review its latest measurements of radiation in air, seawater and groundwater samples, saying they seemed suspiciously high.

TEPCO has repeatedly made mistakes in analyzing radiation levels, and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said it might eventually order a complete review of all radiation data collected since the tsunami.

Though the size of recent leaks is unclear, it appears radiation is still streaming out of the plant, underscoring TEPCO's inability to get it under control.

The company has increasingly asked for international help, most recently ordering giant pumps from the U.S. that will arrive later this month to spray water on the reactors.

The prime minister said in a televised news conference Friday that Japan will do whatever it takes to win the battle at Fukushima Dai-ichi, though he warned that it could be a long process.

"I promise to overcome this problem and regain a society where we can live with peace of mind," said Kan, who wore a suit instead of a blue work jacket for the first time since the tsunami. He also looked ahead, saying he wants to do something innovative beyond just restoring the areas that were destroyed.

He vowed that Japan would create the safest nuclear systems anywhere and reiterated that TEPCO will be responsible for compensating victims of the nuclear disaster — a bill that could be anywhere between 1 trillion and 10 trillion yen ($12 billion and $120 billion), depending on how long it takes to resolve the crisis, according to Yusuke Ueda, a Merrill Lynch analyst. Kan said the government will provide some compensation beyond the utility's legal responsibility.

Some cities are already helping their own residents. In hard-hit Natori, next to Sendai, dozens lined up to apply for funds as aircraft searching for bodies zoomed overhead.

Many people lost all of their possessions, including IDs, so the city has created software that compares neighborhoods before and after the tsunami. People point out where they lived, and if the house in that location has been destroyed, they are eligible for 100,000 yen ($1,200) in assistance.

"We have records of everyone that lived there, and so we can confirm identities by asking birthdays and other information," said Takeshi Shibuya, an official at city hall.

Some applying for the funds, like 33-year-old Osamu Sato, said it would be hardly be enough. He and his pregnant wife bought their apartment and moved in six months before the tsunami destroyed it, plus all of their new furniture and electronics.

"To be honest, 100,000 yen doesn't help much," Sato said. "I've lost everything."

Pressure on Japan to widen nuclear evacuation zone

SENDAI, Japan (AFP) – Japan said Thursday there were no immediate plans to widen the exclusion zone around its stricken nuclear plant, hours after the UN atomic watchdog agency voiced its concern over the issue.

In Washington, the Pentagon ordered a Marine emergency nuclear response unit to deploy to Japan as a precautionary move and to stand ready to assist in Japan's response to the crisis at the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant.

Some 155 Marines from the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force were due to arrive Friday, although there were no plans for them to take part in the emergency work to stabilise Fukushima, US defence officials told AFP.

Iodine-131 in the sea near the plant has risen to a new high of 4,385 times the legal level, the power station operator TEPCO said.

Pressure grew meanwhile on Japan to expand the 20-kilometre (12 mile) exclusion zone around its stricken nuclear reactor after the UN atomic watchdog said radiation in one village 40 kilometres away had reached evacuation level.

In its first such call, the International Atomic Energy Agency added its voice to that of Greenpeace, which has warned for several days that people, especially children and pregnant women, should leave Iitate.

"The first assessment indicates that one of the IAEA operational criteria for evacuation is exceeded in Iitate village," the agency's head of nuclear safety and security, Denis Flory, told reporters in Vienna.

He said the IAEA -- which has no mandate to order nations to act -- had advised Japan to "carefully assess the situation, and they have indicated that it is already under assessment."

The reading in Iitate was two megabecquerels per square metre -- a "ratio about two times higher than levels" at which the IAEA recommends evacuations, said the head of its Incident and Emergency Centre, Elena Buglova.

Japan's top government spokesman Yukio Edano, asked whether further evacuations were needed now, told a press conference: "I don't think that this is something of a nature which immediately requires such action.

"But, the fact that the level of radiation is high in the soil is inevitably pointing to the possibility that the accumulation over the long term may affect human health.

"Therefore, we will continue monitoring the level of radiation with heightened vigilance and we intend to take action if necessary."

Japan cleared tens thousands out of the 20-kilometre exclusion zone around the plant after a giant earthquake and tsunami almost three weeks ago damaged the plant, triggering the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

Thousands more in the 20 to 30 kilometre radius of the plant were initially told to stay indoors and later encouraged to move away.

The United States has advised its citizens to leave an area within a 50-mile (80 kilometre) radius and ordered its military personnel to stay clear of the same zone -- a limit that also applies to the Marines being sent, officials said.

Elevated radiation levels have been detected in the air and seawater near the nuclear plant, and in regional farm produce and Tokyo drinking water.

The anti-nuclear environmental campaign group Greenpeace has set up its own monitoring equipment in Iitate village.

Its radiation safety director Jan van der Putte this week told AFP that "what we're now measuring is a bit of a smoking gun of the radioactivity of the cloud that went over that region more than a week ago.

"And still the radioactivity levels that we can measure today are very significant, to an extent that in some areas (it's) unsafe to stay there for a longer time."

At the plant itself, workers pushed on with the high-stakes battle to stabilise reactors, into which water has been poured to submerge and cool fuel rods that are assumed to have partially melted down.

They are also struggling to safely dispose of thousands of tons of highly contaminated run-off water.

Japan has considered a range of high-tech options -- including covering explosion-charred reactor buildings with fabric, and bringing in robots to clear the irradiated rubble.

A US military barge carrying more fresh water to be pumped into the reactors was expected to arrive near the plant Thursday, the Yomiuri daily said.

Workers also plan to spray an industrial resin at the plant to trap settled radioactive particles, although plans to start Thursday were delayed because of weather conditions, public broadcaster NHK said.

Japan PM: stricken nuclear plant to be scrapped

SENDAI, Japan (AFP) – Japan has said its crisis-hit nuclear plant must be scrapped, but currently had no plans to evacuate more people, despite calls for a larger exclusion zone around the crippled facility.

Grappling with the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami, its biggest post-war disaster, Japan's government hosted French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who called for clear international standards on nuclear safety.

Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan said, in talks with the Japanese Communist Party leader, that the facility at the centre of the worst atomic accident since Chernobyl in 1986 must be decommissioned, Kyodo News reported.

Officials have previously hinted the plant would be retired once the situation there is stabilised, given the severe damage it has sustained including likely partial meltdowns and a series of hydrogen blasts.

Radioactive iodine-131 in groundwater 15 metres (50 feet) beneath the plant has reached a level 10,000 times the government safety standard, the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said early Friday.

It cautioned the figure -- showing radioactive runoff from efforts to cool the plant has entered the water table -- might be revised. TEPCO said Thursday iodine-131 in nearby seawater had hit a new high 4,385 times the legal level.

However, there were no plans to widen a 20-kilometre (12-mile) exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant despite the UN atomic watchdog saying radiation at Iitate village 40 kilometres away had reached evacuation levels.

"At the moment, we do not have the understanding that it is necessary to evacuate residents there. We think the residents can stay calm," said Yoshihiro Sugiyama, an official at the nuclear safety agency.

Japan's top government spokesman Yukio Edano also said further evacuations were not imminent, although he did not rule out that this could change.

"We will continue monitoring the level of radiation with heightened vigilance and we intend to take action if necessary," he told reporters.

The comments came after the IAEA added its voice to that of Greenpeace, which has warned for several days that residents, especially children and pregnant women, should leave Iitate village.

The IAEA's head of nuclear safety and security, Denis Flory, told reporters in Vienna that radiation levels there had exceeded the criteria for triggering evacuations.

He said the IAEA -- which has no mandate to order nations to act -- had advised Japan to "carefully assess the situation, and they have indicated that it is already under assessment."

The reading in Iitate was two megabecquerels per square metre -- a "ratio about two times higher than levels" at which the IAEA recommends evacuations, said the head of its Incident and Emergency Centre, Elena Buglova.

Authorities later said they would Friday lift restrictions issued earlier on drinking tap water in the village, public broadcaster NHK reported.

Radiation exceeding the legal limit was found for the first time in beef from near the Fukushima plant, Kyodo News reported early Friday, adding to concerns over food safety.

The local news agency also said up to 1,000 bodies of tsunami and earthquake victims were lying unclaimed in the nuclear exclusion zone.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Tokyo on Thursday in a show of solidarity with the disaster-hit nation, and urged nuclear authorities in the Group of 20 to establish an international safety standard.

"We call on the independent authorities of G20 members to meet, if possible in Paris, to define an international nuclear safety standard" for power plants, he said in a speech earlier in the day at the French Embassy in Tokyo.

"It is absolutely abnormal that these international safety standards do not exist," he said, suggesting the Paris meeting could take place as early as May.

French nuclear group Areva is assisting TEPCO, which runs the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and the Japanese utility has asked it to provide more help, said Areva Japan president Remy Autebert.

"We'll need a bit of time, but our actions will probably increase in response to their requests," he told AFP.

About 150 Marines of the US Chemical Biological Incident Response Force were due to arrive Friday, although there were no plans for them to take part in the emergency work to stabilise Fukushima, US defence officials told AFP.

At the plant itself, workers pushed on with the high-stakes battle to stabilise reactors, into which water has been poured to submerge and cool fuel rods that are assumed to have partially melted down.

They are also struggling to safely dispose of thousands of tons of highly contaminated run-off water.

Japan has considered a range of high-tech options -- including covering the explosion-charred reactor buildings with fabric, and bringing in robots to clear irradiated rubble.

Workers also plan to spray an industrial resin at the plant to trap settled radioactive particles, although plans to start Thursday were delayed because of weather conditions.

Japan auto sales plunge after tsunami

TOKYO – Japan's car sales plunged nearly 40 percent in March as consumer confidence took a beating from the tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Automakers sold 279,389 cars in Japan last month, down 37 percent — the biggest ever year-on-year drop for March, the Japan Automobile Dealers Association said.

The plunge in sales stems from weak consumer sentiment following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which decimated much of northeastern Japan, and the ensuing radiation leaks at the coastal Fukushima nuclear power plant.

"People are simply reluctant to buy cars at this time. The tsunami and the ongoing nuclear disaster have depressed consumer sentiment," said association spokesman Masashi Miyajima.

Miyajima said many people in the quake-hit areas were also canceling car purchases.

The tsunami caused massive disruptions in the supply of auto parts, forcing Toyota Motor Corp. and others to suspend production.

JPMorgan said auto output will take time to completely bounce back because of the "breadth of the production chain" that has been affected.

But once normal production returns, auto sales should climb, "especially as the loss of automobiles in affected areas was massive," JPMorgan economist Miwako Nakamura said in a report for clients.

March was the seventh straight month of decline for Japan's auto sales. Before the disaster, sales were falling because of an end to government incentives for purchases of fuel efficient cars.

Japan utility ordered to review radiation figures

TOKYO – Japan's nuclear safety agency ordered a review Friday of the latest radiation measurements taken in air, seawater and groundwater samples around a leaking, tsunami-disabled nuclear plant, saying they seemed suspiciously high.

The utility that runs the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant has repeatedly been forced to retract such figures, fueling fears over health risks and a lack of confidence in the company's ability to respond effectively to the crisis. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. has not been able to stabilize the plant's dangerously overheating reactors since cooling systems were knocked out in the March 11 tsunami.

Among the measurements called into question was one from Thursday that TEPCO said showed groundwater under one of the reactors contained iodine concentrations that were 10,000 times the government's standard for the plant, the safety agency's spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said. Seawater and air concentrations from this week also are under review.

"We have suspected their isotope analysis, and we will wait for the new results," Nishiyama said, adding that the agency thinks the numbers may be too high.

TEPCO has conceded that there appears to be an error in the computer program used to analyze the data and that recent figures may be inaccurate. They have indicated they are probably too high but have also said that the figures may be correct, despite the glitch.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has held out the possibility that a complete review of all radiation data collected since the tsunami might eventually be ordered.

Though the size of more recent leaks is now unclear, it appears radiation is still streaming out of the plant, underscoring TEPCO's inability to get it under control. The company has increasingly asked for international help in its uphill battle, most recently ordering giant pumps from the U.S. that were to arrive later this month to spray water on the reactors.

Seiki Kawagoe, an environmental science professor at Tohoku University, said it was unlikely that radiation seeping into the ground under the plant would affect drinking water. He noted that radiation tends to dissipate quickly in the ground, as it does in the ocean.

But there are two ways the iodine could eventually affect drinking water if concentrations were high enough. One is if it were to seep into wells in the area. For now, a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius around the plant has been cleared, though residents of the area are growing increasingly frustrated with evacuation orders and have been sneaking back to check on their homes.

The other concern is that contaminated water from the plant could seep into underground waterways and eventually into rivers used for drinking water. Tomohiro Mogamiya, an official with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's water supply division, said that was "extremely unlikely" since groundwater would flow toward the ocean, and the plant is right on the coast.

The two closest filtration plants for drinking water have both been shut down because they are just inside the exclusion zone.

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

Radiation concerns have rattled the Japanese public, already struggling to return to normal life after the earthquake-borne tsunami pulverized hundreds of miles (kilometers) of the northeastern coast. Three weeks after the disaster in one of the most connected countries in the world, 260,000 households still do no have running water and 170,000 do not have electricity. Officials fear up to 25,000 people may have been killed.

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

Radioactive cesium can build up in the body and high levels are thought to be a risk for various cancers. It is still found in wild boar in Germany 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, making the pigs off-limits for eating in many cases.

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

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

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

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

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

Though the company has acknowledged that it was initially slow to ask for help in dealing with the nuclear crisis, experts from around the world are now flooding in. French nuclear giant Areva, which supplied fuel to the plant, is helping figure out how to dispose of contaminated water, and American nuclear experts are joining Japanese on a panel to address the disaster.

Japan has also ordered two giant pumps, typically used for spraying concrete, from the U.S. They are being retrofitted to spray water first, according to Kelly Blickle, a spokeswoman at Putzmeister America Inc. in Wisconsin. At least one similar pump is already in operation at the plant.

U.S. troops also are involved in the search for the dead. Japan's defense ministry said that, starting Friday, the two militaries will create joint teams to look for bodies from the air. So far 11,500 people have been confirmed dead. Of those, more than 9,000 have been identifed. Another 16,400 are missing, and many may never be found.

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

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

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

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