TOKYO — Japan is increasingly turning to other countries for help as it struggles to stabilize its tsunami-stricken nuclear plant and stop radiation leaks that are complicating efforts to recover the bodies of some of the thousands swept away by the towering wave.
French, American and international experts — even a robot — are either in Japan or on their way, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Tokyo on Thursday to meet with the prime minister and show solidarity.
Workers are racing to find the source of contaminated water that has been pooling in the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The leaks have often forced workers to flee the plant, preventing them from restarting important cooling systems.
“The amount of water is enormous, and we need any wisdom available,” said nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama.
A spokesman for plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said Thursday that radioactive contamination in groundwater 15 yards (meters) under one of six reactors there had been measured at 10,000 times the government standard. It was the first time the utility has released statistics for groundwater near the plant.
The government did not say what the standard is but the elevated levels would only be an issue if contamination got into the water supply, and spokesman Naoyuki Matsumo said the water supply has not been affected. Also, no one is living there because everyone within 12 miles (20 kilometres) of the plant has been evacuated.
Still, elevated levels of iodine-131, a radioactive substance that decays quickly, were another sign that radiation is leaking from the plant.
Experts from French nuclear giant Areva, which supplied fuel to the plant, are helping figure out how to dispose of the contaminated water that has begun leaking into the ground and the sea.
“We are not a supplier only for happy days,” CEO Anne Lauvergeon told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday. “We are effectively also there when things become difficult.”
Officials from the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said they welcome the help.
“U.S. nuclear plants aren’t by the ocean, unlike Japanese ones, so we think the French may be able to help us more than the Americans,” said TEPCO Manager Teruaki Kobayashi.
Officials with his company also said they expect to use a remote-controlled robot sent by the U.S. within a few days to evaluate areas with high radiation. They are also setting up a panel of Japanese and American nuclear experts and American military personnel to address the crisis.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the tsunami and magnitude-9.0 earthquake. Some saw their homes destroyed by the wall of water, while others have been ordered to leave the evacuation zone. Authorities have recommended that people in a 20-mile (30-kilometre) band might want to evacuate too.
Frustrated evacuees had begun trickling back into the smaller zone to gather belongings and check on their homes, but officials in Fukushima prefecture posted warnings at evacuation centres telling them not to go back for any reason.
“There is not only a risk that you may be contaminated, but also that you could contaminate others in the evacuation centres when you return,” the warnings said. “The national government is now considering whether to allow brief return visits, so please bear with us.”
On Friday, the government said it planned more tests on a cow slaughtered for beef that had very slightly elevated levels of cesium, another radioactive particle. Officials stressed that the meat was never put on the market. Contamination has already been found in vegetables and raw milk near the plant.
Health Ministry spokesman Taku Ohara said the cesium was found in a cow slaughtered March 15 more than 40 miles (70 kilometres) from the plant. It had a total cesium level of 510 becquerels per kilogram. The limit is 500.
Radioactive cesium can build up in the body and high levels are thought to be a risk for various cancers. Still, researchers who studied Chornobyl could not find an increase in cancers that might be linked to cesium.
It is still found in the soil of Germany, Austria and France 25 years after Chornobyl and is found in wild boar in Germany, making the pigs off-limits for eating in many cases. The limit Germany has set for cesium in wild boars is 600 becquerels per kilogram.
In Japan, the radiation has forced police officers trying to recover the dead from the evacuation zone to don white hazmat suits and radiation monitors. Officials believe more than 19,000 people died, but so far only about 11,000 bodies have been found. Local media estimate that hundreds of corpses remain.
“We find bodies everywhere — in cars, in rivers, under debris and in streets,” a police official from the hard-hit Fukushima prefecture said Thursday. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
In the small coastal city of Miyako, many people still have no idea what happened to their relatives. Residents watched intently Thursday as a firefighter in a boat and two tractors cleared the bay of rubble, part of cleanup efforts under way along hundreds of miles (kilometres) of Japan’s northeastern seaboard.
Giant tractors and dump trucks cleared roads and sorted debris into giant piles. Huge barges with onboard cranes docked offshore and scooped up wreckage in the shallow bays.
“I lost three grandchildren,” says Isamu Aneishi, 69, who sat on a log for hours and watched the men search the bay.
A vacant lot outside Miyako has been turned into a car graveyard, with hundreds of wrecked vehicles from across the region deposited in neat rows. Some looked ready to be driven away, while others were little more than mangled heaps of metal. Many were marked with red spray paint, indicating bodies had been found inside, and some still had keys in the ignition. Residents walked up and down the rows looking for their cars.
“This is my third time coming here,” said Yasuhiro Ichihashi, 42, who watched his car get swept out of the parking lot at his factory from high ground. “They keep adding more cars every day, so I come back to check.”
Meanwhile, at the nuclear plant 140 miles (220 kilometres) northeast of Tokyo, workers go inside in shifts and are often forced to turn back because radiation levels are too high.
They have been lauded as heroes, but Kazuma Yokota, head of the Fukushima local office Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said he saw them living under harsh conditions during a recent inspection visit. They got only two meals a day and just one blanket each when it was time to sleep.
“They sleep on the floor, inside a conference room, or even in the hallway or in front of a bathroom. That’s where they sleep, with only one blanket each to wrap themselves around,” he told a televised news conference. Nishiyama said TEPCO is working to improve the conditions.
Sarkozy, the first major international leader to visit since the disaster, praised the work being done at the plant.
“Every image I have seen is really, really disturbing, and I am really impressed by the workers in Fukushima who work at the nuclear plant with courage,” he said before meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
After the meeting, he urged the world to learn from Japan’s crisis and suggested that the Group of 20 nations set international nuclear safety standards.
“It’s completely abnormal that these international safety norms don’t exist,” Sarkozy said. The International Atomic Energy Agency does have standards, but nations are not bound by them.
Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge in Fukushima, Jay Alabaster in Miyako and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo contributed to this report.