FUKUSHIMA, Japan // Gray smoke rose from two reactor units yesterday, temporarily stalling critical work to reconnect power lines and restore cooling systems to stabilise the radiation-leaking nuclear complex damaged in an earthquake.
Workers are racing to bring the nuclear plant under control, but the process is proceeding in fits and starts, stalled by incidents like the smoke and by the need to work methodically to make sure wiring, pumps and other machinery can be safely switched on.
Yuhei Sato, the governor of Fukushima prefecture, where the plant is located, told the more than 1,000 people moved away from the plant into a gymnasium: "Our crisis is still going on. Our crisis is with the nuclear plants. We are doing everything we can to bring this to an end, Don't give up. We know you are suffering."
"Please get us out of here," yelled Harunobu Suzuki, 63, a truck driver.
What caused the smoke to billow first from Unit 3 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and later from Unit 2 is under investigation, nuclear safety agency officials said. However, in the days since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami wrecked the plant's cooling systems, both reactors have overheated and seen explosions. Workers were evacuated from the area to buildings nearby, though radiation levels remained steady, officials said.
Problems set off by the disasters have ranged far beyond the devastated north-east coast and the wrecked nuclear plant, handing the government what it has called Japan's worst crisis since the Second World War. Rebuilding the ruined north-east coast may cost as much as US$235 billion (Dh862.5bn). Police estimate the death toll will surpass 18,000.
Traces of radiation are tainting vegetables and some water supplies, although in amounts the government and health experts say do not pose a risk to human health in the short-term. China, Japan's biggest trading partner, ordered testing of Japanese food imports for radiation contamination.
"Please do not overreact, and act calmly," said the chief cabinet spokesman, Yukio Edano, in the government's latest appeal to ease public concerns. "Even if you eat contaminated vegetables several times, it will not harm your health at all."
Mr Edano said Fukushima's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, would compensate farmers affected by bans on the sale of raw milk, spinach and canola.
The troubles at Fukushima have in some ways overshadowed the natural catastrophe, threatening a wider disaster if the plant spews more concentrated forms of radiation than it has so far.
The nuclear safety agency and Tokyo Electric reported significant progress over the weekend and yesterday. Electrical teams, having finished connecting three of the plant's six units, worked to connect the rest by today, the utility said.
Once done, however, pumps and other equipment have to be checked, and the reactors cleared of dangerous gas, before the power can be restored. For instance, a motorised pump to inject water into Unit 2's overheated reactor and spent fuel storage pool needs to be replaced, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, an official at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, or NISA.
The crisis has brought renewed scrutiny to Tokyo Electric, a wealthy, politically influential utility that has been accused in the past of safety violations. Days before the disaster, a NISA report criticised Tokyo Electric for failing to inspect crucial equipment related to cooling systems at Fukushima, though agency officials refused yesterday to draw a link between the inspection lapses and the breakdown of cooling systems after the tsunami.
Radioactive iodine, which breaks down after a week, has been the most widespread contaminant found, but so have traces of caesium, which lasts decades and may cause cancer.
That caesium was likely generated when nuclear fuel rods partially melted last week, NISA's Nishiyama said, and is an indication of potential harm to the environment and how badly damaged some of the reactors are.
Early yesterday, the health ministry advised Iitate, a village of 6,000 people about 30 kilometres north-west of the plant, not to drink tap water due to elevated levels of iodine. The ministry spokesman, Takayuki Matsuda, said iodine three times the normal level was detected there: about one 26th of the level of a chest X-ray in one litre of water.
Growing concerns about radiation add to the chain of disasters Japan has struggled with since the 9.0-magnitude quake. The resulting tsunami ravaged the north-eastern coast.
"It is very distressing as we recover more bodies day by day," said Hitoshi Sugawara, a police spokesman.
Nationwide, official figures show the disasters killed more than 8,600 people, and leaving more than 13,200 missing, but those two lists may have some overlap.
In an example of the tsunami's force, the wave swept a collapsed house out of a devastated neighbourhood in the city of Ishinomaki and deposited it near a river about 100 metres away. A 16-year-old boy and his grandmother who were trapped inside survived and were rescued on Sunday when the boy, Jin Abe, was finally able to crawl out of the smashed home and get the attention of a police patrol. Abe told Japanese broadcaster NHK yesterday from his hospital bed: "I'm so relieved to be rescued."
He and his 80-year-old grandmother, Sumi Abe, were wedged under debris in the kitchen of their smashed two-story home and ate snacks and drank water from the nearby refrigerator as they lay trapped in the debris.
* Associated Press