Fukushima, Japan The toll of Japan’s triple disaster came into clearer focus today after police estimates showed more than 18,000 people died, the World Bank said rebuilding may cost $235 billion and more cases of radiation-tainted vegetables and tap water turned up.
Japanese officials reported progress over the weekend in their battle to gain control over a nuclear complex that began leaking radiation after suffering quake and tsunami damage, though the crisis was far from over, with a dangerous new surge in pressure reported in one of the plant’s six reactors.
The announcement by Japan’s Health Ministry late Sunday 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 today, Japan’s military resumed dousing of the complex’s troubled Unit 4.
The World Bank said in report today that Japan may need five years to rebuild from the catastrophic disasters, which caused up to $235 billion in damage, saying the cost to private insurers will be up to $33 billion and that the government will spend $12 billion on reconstruction in the current national budget and much more later.
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. Tokyo’s tap water, where iodine turned up Friday, now has cesium. Rain and dust are also tainted.
Early today, the Health Ministry 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 one liter of water.
In all cases, the government said the radiation levels were too small to pose an immediate health risk.
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.