In Japan, Reports Of Radiation Tainted Food

Japanese officials are ramping up their efforts to bring the damaged nuclear reactors under control. But authorities say radiation has tainted some food from the region near the nuclear complex, and the effects of the damage have both short and long-term economic consequences. NPR science correspondent Chris Joyce and NPR economic correspondent John Ydstie, both in Tokyo, talk with Scott Simon about the latest developments.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Firefighters in Japan have ramped up their efforts to quench the overheated nuclear reactors that were damaged last week by the massive earthquake and tsunami. And engineers are making progress in returning electricity to the complex. But authorities say radiation has tainted some food in the region near the complex. It's a sign that the damage from this accident will have widespread effects for a long time to come.

First, we're going to talk to NPR correspondent Christopher Joyce about the stricken power plant, and then correspondent John Ydstie about some of the economic effects. Chris, these are signs of progress?

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: I'd say it's better than it was a few days ago. On the upside, the reactor core - is where the nuclear reactions actually take place -seem to be stable for the moment. The downside has been the nuclear fuel pools - that's where the used fuel from the reactors is stored - they need to be kept covered up with water because it's really hot; it's very radioactive as well. And it could catch fire and spread radiation if it isn't kept really cool.

SIMON: And that's what the fire trucks and tanker trucks are for?

JOYCE: Exactly. They started with helicopters, which didn't work - trying to dump water on them. Now, they're using water cannons that shoot these streams of water. They stepped up their effort today, in fact, and they brought in more trucks. And they claim they shot 50 tons of water a minute into one the reactors, where the temperatures are a little high.

SIMON: And what's the significance of the report that radiation's been detected in spinach and milk?

JOYCE: It's unsettling. Obviously, people are concerned about this because it goes to human health. It's not that unexpected. The levels are really low. The authorities say eating the tainted food would give a dose less than a CAT scan at a hospital. But it's evidence, really, that the effects here are going - and will go - way beyond the power plant itself.

SIMON: And of course, that includes economic effects. We're going to turn to John Ydstie. John, one challenge that Japan had to work over this week was a rapidly appreciating currency. Now, that's not something you'd ordinarily expect in a country with so many challenges.

YDSTIE: No. I was surprised by that. But the reason for the sharp increase was that speculators started buying yen. They were making bets that big Japanese companies with lots of investments overseas are going to have to start selling those overseas assets in order to raise money for rebuilding, and bring it back into Japan. And to get it back into Japan, the companies are going to have to buy yen, which will drive up the value of the yen even further. And speculators will profit.

Japan's government wasn't very happy because a rising yen could cripple Japan's export industries, and possibly push the already fragile economy back into recession. So they called on their allies in the G7 to help them fight back in the currency markets. And yesterday, the G7 central banks managed to reverse the yen's appreciation - at least, for the time being.

SIMON: Of course, it's impossible not to see these pictures of damage and destruction, and come to grips with the fact that there's just been a huge damage to the infrastructure of this heavily industrialized country. Are people there beginning to get a grip on how extensive that damage is?

YDSTIE: Well, we don't have really good numbers on that, but it is extensive. And there was lots of damage to factories in that area - electronics plants, automotive plants - that provide parts for companies all over the world.

For example, this week General Motors said it would temporarily idle a pick-up truck plant in Louisiana due to a parts shortage caused by the disaster. Honda said Friday it will extend a halt in the production of cars in Japan until next Wednesday. And there are concerns that parts for Apple's iPad 2 could be in short supply, too.

That kind of interruption in the supply change will affect countless other companies until the factories are rebuilt, or production is replaced somehow. And of course, the nuclear situation is another wild card.

JOYCE: And Chris Joyce, we'll - finally - turn to you. As we speak today, what do they have to do to get that nuclear situation under control?

JOYCE: Well, the most important thing is to get electric power back to the complex. And they say they're pretty close. Workers today went in and hooked up a power cable to one reactor building. In fact, it's a mile-long cable. That's the extent to which they've had to go. And it's supposed to cycle in electricity - maybe as soon as tonight or tomorrow. One other option is using a cable or a line that existed before, that cycled electricity out of the plant. And they're going to reverse it, and try to get electricity in. If they can do that, then that really is going to move them forward in an important way.

SIMON: NPR's Christopher Joyce and John Ydstie. Thanks so much.

JOYCE: You're welcome.

YDSTIE: You're welcome, Scott.

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