TOKYO (AP) — Fears about contaminated seafood spread Wednesday despite reassurances that radiation in the waters off Japan's troubled atomic plant pose no health risk, as the country's respected emperor consoled evacuees from the tsunami and nuclear emergency zone.
While experts say radioactive particles are unlikely to build up significantly in fish, the seafood concerns in the country that gave the world sushi are yet another blemish for Brand Japan. It has already been hit by contamination of milk, vegetables and water, plus shortages of auto and tech parts after a massive quake and tsunami disabled a coastal nuclear power plant.
Setbacks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex mounted Wednesday, as the plant's operator, Tokyo Power Electric Co., announced that its president was hospitalized. Masataka Shimizu has not been seen since a news conference two days after the March 11 quake that spawned the destructive wave. His absence fueled speculation that he had suffered a breakdown.
The problems at the nuclear plant have taken center stage, but the tsunami also created another disaster: Hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes after the wave drove miles (kilometers) inland, decimating whole towns. The official death toll stood at 11,362 late Wednesday, with the final toll likely surpassing 18,000.
Japan's respected Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited disaster evacuees at a center in Tokyo on Wednesday. The visit was marked by a formality that is typical of interactions with the royal couple, but survivors said they were encouraged.
"I couldn't talk with them very well because I was nervous, but I felt that they were really concerned about us," said Kenji Ukito, an evacuee from a region near the plant who has already moved four times since the quake. "I was very grateful."
The emperor and his wife make fairly frequent public appearances, visiting nursing homes and the disabled and attending ceremonies throughout the year. In particular, they are expected to mourn with those affected by natural disasters. Akihito made a similar visit to evacuees after the Kobe earthquake in 1995.
At the Fukushima plant, the fight to cool the reactors and stem their release of radiation has become more complicated in recent days since the discovery that radioactive water is pooling in the plant, restricting the areas in which crews can work. It also puts emergency crews in the uncomfortable position of having to pump in more water to continue cooling the reactor while simultaneously pumping out contaminated water.
That contamination has also begun to seep into the sea, and tests Wednesday showed that waters 300 yards (meters) outside the plant contained 3,355 times the legal limit for the amount of radioactive iodine.
It's the highest rate yet, but Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama said it did not pose any threat to human health because the iodine rarely stays in fish. There is no fishing in the area because it is within the evacuation zone around the plant.
Radioactive iodine is short-lived, with a half-life of just eight days, and in any case was expected to dissipate quickly in the vast Pacific Ocean. It does not tend to accumulate in shellfish.
Other radioactive particles have been detected in the waters near the plant, and some have made their way into fish. Trace amounts of radioactive cesium-137 have been found in anchovies as far afield as Chiba, near Tokyo, but at less than 1 percent of acceptable levels.
"We have repeatedly told consumers that it is perfectly safe to eat fish," said Shoichi Takayama, an official with Japan's fishery agency.
Citing dilution in the ocean, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has played down the risks of seafood contamination.
But, as with other reports of radiation levels in food and tap water, fear has begun to override science. Several countries, including China, India and South Korea, have ordered special inspections for or outright bans on fish from areas near the plant.
Ren Cheng, a spokesman for Taiwan's Mitsui Food & Beverage Enterprise Group that operates several upscale Japanese restaurants in Taipei, said his company has seen a 50 percent drop in revenue since the crisis began.
"We are not importing any food products from Japan. All the Japanese ingredients we are using were all procured before the quake," he said. "We have put up signs in our restaurants to reassure costumers about the safety of our food."