A mother holding her baby receives bottles of water at a Tokyo ward office Thursday after officials warned the day before that radioactive iodine over twice the safe level for infants had been detected in tap water. Wednesday's warning caused a run on bottled water, and the government is now asking people not to stockpile.
Yomiuri Shimbun, Keita Iijima/AP
Survivors line up for gasoline in the devastated city of Ishinomaki, Iwate prefecture.
Sixth-grader Mirai Okuda reacts following a graduation ceremony in the devastated city of Ishinomaki.
A Japanese woman plays with her daughter at a relief centre set up for survivors in the city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture.
Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images
Pedestrians walk along a broken railroad line in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture.
Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images
People read messages posted by survivors on the wall of a relief center in Rikuzentakata.
Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images
Fears have eased about water contamination after officials announced that tap water in Japan's largest city tested at radiation levels safe for both adults and infants to drink. On Wednesday, residents of Tokyo were warned that radiation in tap water was above recommended levels for infants, which led to a run on bottled water in many stores.
Health officials said Thursday that water in Tokyo has returned to safe levels, and they are no longer recommending that parents avoid preparing infant formula with tap water. But radiation from the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant remains a concern, as tests continue to show high levels in water, food and soil in some areas closer to the plant, which is 140 miles northeast of Tokyo.
Tests of drinking water continue to show high radiation levels at several locations north of Tokyo, and residents there are being urged not to allow infants to drink it. The city of Hitachi reports that radioactive iodine in water there measures 298 becquerels per kilogram. The limit for adult consumption in Japan is 300 becquerels per kilogram of water; for infants, it is 100 becquerels.
Radiation has been leaking from the nuclear plant since it was struck by the March 11 earthquake and flooded by the ensuing tsunami. Feverish efforts to get the plant's crucial cooling system back in operation have been beset by explosions, fire and radiation scares.
Workers Exposed To Radiation
Medical workers in protective gear gather around an ambulance which arrived at a hospital in Fukushima City, carrying two workers from the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant after they stepped into contaminated water while laying electrical cables in one unit on March 24.
Medical workers in protective gear gather around an ambulance which arrived at a hospital in Fukushima City, carrying two workers from the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant after they stepped into contaminated water while laying electrical cables in one unit on March 24. Jun Yasukawa/AP
On Thursday, two workers at the plant suffered injuries when their feet came in contact with radioactive elements while they were laying electrical cables in the basement of a turbine building next to reactor No. 3, according to a spokesman with Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. The men were employed by a subcontractor for Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant.
The two were exposed to radiation levels between 170 to 180 millisieverts, less than the maximum amount of 250 millisieverts that the government allows for workers at the plant. But that's because the government has raised the level for workers' maximum exposure during recovery efforts, from 100 millisieverts to 250 millisieverts. The workers were being treated at a hospital.
The workers were exposed to more radiation than many people will receive in a lifetime; it's enough to cause burns to the skin and damage to bone marrow. The nuclear safety agency spokesman said a third worker received a smaller exposure that did not require hospital care.
More than two dozen people have been injured trying to bring the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant under control, and a number of others have been exposed to higher than normal levels of radiation.
Meanwhile, technicians continue efforts to bring the damaged nuclear facility back under control. On Thursday, workers turned on the lights in the control room for Unit No. 1. They have restored external power to all six reactors but are still struggling to bring cooling systems back online. The earthquake and tsunami knocked out power, setting off the emergency at the plant.
Food Safety Concerns Linger
Despite progress in recovery efforts, experts in Japan and around the world are concerned about possible health effects of the accident. 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.
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 the isotope, which can cause thyroid cancer.
Stockpiling Water In Toyko
In Tokyo, government spokesman Yukio Edano pleaded for calm. 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.
"Just because the readings were high there's no immediate health hazard," Edano said at a news conference Thursday. Asked what the government is doing about the shortage from the run on bottled water throughout Tokyo, Edano said, "For the great majority of the population other than the babies, the use of tap water would not be hazardous. Therefore, I hope those people without the babies would act calmly."
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."
Maruetsu supermarket in central Tokyo sought to impose buying limits on specific items to prevent hoarding: only one carton of milk per family, one 11-pound bag of rice, one package of toilet paper, one pack of diapers, signs said. Similar notices at some drug stores told women they could only purchase two feminine hygiene items at a time.
Kayoko Kano, a spokeswoman at Maruetsu headquarters, 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 saod.
Meanwhile, in the northeast, some 660,000 households still do not have water, the government said. Electricity has not been restored to some 209,000 homes, according to Tohoku Electric Power Co. Damage across Japan is estimated at $309 billion, making it the most costly natural disaster on record.
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, the military said.
"This is without a doubt the most complex humanitarian mission ever conducted," Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, said in a statement Thursday. "It is not one disaster, but three: an earthquake, a tsunami, and a crisis at a nuclear power plant, made even more complicated by heavy weather that hampers visibility."