Tokyo: Radiation injuries to workers complicated the battle to control Japan’s crippled nuclear plant on Friday, two weeks after a quake and tsunami that also left more than 27,000 people dead or missing.
More than 700 engineers have been working in shifts around the clock to stabilise the six-reactor Fukushima complex since the multiple disaster on 11 March.
But they had to pull out of some parts of the complex, 240 km north of Tokyo, when three workers replacing a cable at one reactor were exposed to high contamination by standing in radioactive water on Thursday, officials said.
Two were taken to hospital with possible radiation burns after the water seeped over their boots.
“We should try to avoid delays as much as possible, but we also need to ensure that the people working there are safe,” said Japanese nuclear agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama.
Safety fears at the plant and beyond - radiation particles have been found as far away as Iceland - are compounding Japan’s worst crisis since World War Two.
As well as causing the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, the magnitude 9.0 quake and ensuing wall of water that tore in from the Pacific killed 9,811 people and left 17,541 more missing, according to latest police figures.
Kyodo news agency said the death toll had topped 10,000.
Despite increased radiation reports, fears of a catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima plant are receding.
Two of the reactors are now regarded as safe in what is called a cold shutdown. Four remain volatile, emitting steam and smoke periodically, but work is advancing to restart water pumps needed to cool fuel rods inside those reactors.
“It’s much more hopeful,” said Tony Roulstone, a nuclear energy expert at Cambridge University.
The United States has been offering aid to its ally Japan, and two of its barges will together provide 525,000 gallons (2.0 million litres) of water for cooling the reactors.
Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) said the three injured workers were carrying radiation meters but ignored an alarm when it rang. Engineers would be briefed again on safety.
Heightened by widespread public ignorance of the technicalities of radiation, alarm has been spreading.
Vegetable and milk shipments from the areas near the plant have been stopped, and Tokyo’s 13 million residents were told this week not to give tap water to babies after contamination from rain put radiation at twice the safety level.
But it dropped back to safe levels the next day, and the city governor cheerily drank water in front of cameras at a water purifying plant.
Despite government reassurances and appeals for people not to panic, there has been a rush on bottled water and shelves in many Tokyo shops remained empty of the product on Friday.
“Customers ask us for water. But there’s nothing we can do,” said Tokyo supermarket worker Masayoshi Kasahara.
The government is dipping into stockpiles, and there have been donations of bottled water from abroad.
In the latest contamination finds, Kyodo reported that radioactive caesium 1.8 times higher than the standard level was found in a leafy vegetable grown at a Tokyo research facility.
Near the nuclear plant, there is a 20 km evacuation zone where more than 70,000 people have had to leave.
The government on Friday encouraged people in the 20-30 km range - who until now have only been told to stay indoors - to also leave, not because of health risks but because of the disruption to their daily lives.
However, it announced separately that daily radiation at a point 30 km northwest of Fukushima exceeded the annual limit on doses from natural means.
Experts say radiation leaking from the plant is still mainly below levels of exposure from flights or dental and medical x-rays.
Nevertheless, Singapore, Australia, the United States and Hong Kong are all restricting food and milk imports from the zone. Other nations are screening Japanese food, and German shipping companies are simply avoiding the nation.
In Japan’s north, more than a quarter of a million people are in shelters. Exhausted rescuers are still sifting through the wreckage of towns and villages, retrieving bodies and pulling out photos for the consolation of survivors.
Authorities are burying unidentified bodies in mass graves, despite Japan’s usual Buddhist practice of cremation.
Amid the suffering, though, there was a sense that Japan was turning the corner in its humanitarian crisis. Aid flowed to refugees, and phone, electricity, postal and bank services began returning to the north, albeit sometimes by makeshift means.
“Things are getting much better,” said 57-year-old Tsutomu Hirayama, with his family at an evacuation centre in Ofunato.
“For the first two or three days, we had only one rice ball and water for each meal. I thought, how long is this going to go on? Now we get lots of food, it’s almost like luxury.”
The estimated $300 billion damage from the quake and tsunami makes this the world’s costliest natural disaster, dwarfing Japan’s 1995 Kobe quake and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.
Global financial market jitters over Japan’s crisis have calmed, though supply disruptions are affecting the automobile and technology sectors.
Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said the Group of Seven rich nations would continue to monitor the foreign exchange market and cooperate again if needed after last week’s intervention to curb a surge in Japan’s yen currency.
Foreigner investor buying of Japanese shares actually reached a record high in the week after the disasters, data showed, as bargain-hunters leapt in when stocks first plunged.