The World Health Organization said on Monday that radiation in food after an earthquake damaged a Japanese nuclear plant was more serious than previously thought, eclipsing signs of progress in a battle to avert a catastrophic meltdown in its reactors.
Engineers managed to rig power cables to all six reactors at the Fukushima complex, 240 km (150 miles) north ofTokyo, and started a water pump at one of them to reverse the overheating that has triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.
Some workers were later evacuated from one of the most badly damaged reactors when smoke briefly rose from the site. There was no immediate explanation for the smoke, but authorities had said earlier that pressure was building up at the No. 3 reactor.
Smoke was also seen at the No. 2 reactor.
The March 11 earthquake and tsunami left more than 21,000 people dead or missing and will cost an already beleaguered economy some $250 billion, making it the world’s costliest ever natural disaster.
The head of the UN atomic agency said the nuclear situation remained very serious but it would be resolved.
“I have no doubt that this crisis will be effectively overcome,” Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told an emergency board meeting.
But news of progress at the nuclear plant was overshadowed by mounting concern that radioactive particles already released into the atmosphere have contaminated food and water supplies.
“Quite clearly it’s a serious situation,” Peter Cordingley, Manilabased spokesman for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional office for the Western Pacific, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“It’s a lot more serious than anybody thought in the early days when we thought that this kind of problem can be limited to 20 to 30 kilometres … It’s safe to suppose that some contaminated produce got out of the contamination zone.”
However, he said there was no evidence of contaminated food from Fukushima reaching other countries.
Fukushima is the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, but signs are that it is far less severe than the Ukrainian disaster.
Japan’s Health Ministry has urged some residents near the plant to stop drinking tap water after high levels of radioactive iodine were detected.
Cases of contaminated vegetables and milk have already stoked anxiety despite assurances from officials that the levels are not dangerous. The government has prohibited the sale of spinach from all four prefectures near the plant and also banned selling of raw milk from Fukushima prefecture.
There were no major reports of contaminated food in Tokyo, a city of about 13 million people. City officials however said higher-than- standard levels of iodine were found in an edible form of chrysanthemum.
“From reports I have heard so far, it seems that the levels of radioactive iodine and caesium in milk and some foodstuffs are significantly higher than government limits,” said Jim Smith, a specialist in earth and environmental sciences at Britain’s Portsmouth University.
“This doesn’t mean that consumption of these products is necessarily an immediate threat, as limits are set so that foodstuffs can be safely consumed over a fairly long period of time. Nevertheless, for foodstuffs which are found to be above limits, bans on sale and consumption will have to be put in place in the affected areas.”
Japan is a net importer of food, but has substantial exports – mainly fruit, vegetables, dairy products and seafood – with its biggest markets in Hong Kong, China and the United States.
In Taipei, one of the top Japanese restaurants in the city is offering diners the use of a radiation gauge in case they were nervous about the food.