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Japanese vegetables, tap water tainted

FUKUSHIMA, Japan -- Japanese officials reported progress yesterday in their battle to gain control over a leaking, tsunami-stricken nuclear complex, though the crisis was far from over, with the discovery of more radiation-tainted vegetables and tap water adding to public fears about contaminated food and drink.

The announcement by Japan's Health Ministry yesterday 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 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. But the contamination spread to spinach in three other prefectures and to more vegetables -- canola and chrysanthemum greens. Tokyo's tap water, where iodine turned up Friday, now has cesium. Rain and dust are also tainted.

The Health Ministry also advised Iitate, a village of 6,000 people about 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 all cases, the government said the radiation levels were too small to pose an immediate health risk. But Taiwan seized a batch of fava beans from Japan found with faint -- and legal -- amounts of iodine and cesium. 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.

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.

But the buildup in pressure inside the vessel holding Unit 3's reactor forced officials to consider venting. Nuclear safety officials said one of the options could release a cloud dense with iodine as well as the radioactive elements krypton and xenon. The plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., temporarily suspended the plans yesterdaySunday after it said the pressure inside the reactor stopped climbing.

"It has stabilized," Tokyo Electric manager Hikaru Kuroda told reporters.

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