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Video: Radiation leaves Tokyo water tapped out

  1. Closed captioning of: Radiation leaves Tokyo water tapped out

    >>> our coverage of japan tonight. this nuclear crisis that came out of the quake and the tsunami is an ongoing crisis in japan . but it's a growing global issue as it is any time radiation is involved. in japan they have discovered radiation levels are too high in the drinking water , especially for young children, infants. it's been detected in 11 different types of vegetables. this has led to something of a food safety scare here. the fda has slapped a ban on milk, fruit and vegetables from that region of japan . here is nbc's robert bazell in tokyo . bob, good evening.

    >> reporter: well, the levels of radiation here in tokyo are still relatively low. the incident underscores the need to get those reactors under control as soon as possible.

    >> radioactive materials have been detected in one of tokyo 's water purifying plants.

    >> reporter: the news rattled tokyo residents. but officials cautioned that levels of radioactive iodine in tap water threatened only infants, and instructed families to use bottled water for formula, sending frantic parents out to stock up.

    >> translator: i am so worried. i came to the store to buy supplies for my baby.

    >> reporter: while others considered more drastic measures, including leaving town.

    >> you have to do the best you can. so if you have the means to go further out, perhaps you should.

    >> reporter: dr. ritsuko komaki survived hiroshima as a child. she is now a radiation oncologist at md andersen hospital in houston.

    >> the children who are growing, their cells are very sensitive to radiation.

    >> reporter: which puts them at the greatest risk for developing thyroid cancer from excessive radioactive iodine . concerns for safety of the food supply mounted, as radiation has now been detected in milk and 11 different vegetables. some fear radiation found in the ocean could also threaten seafood. new video released by the tokyo fire department showed firefighters at the fukushima plant friday. efforts to cool down radioactive material continue today, although workers had to be evacuated temporarily after black smoke billowed again from reactor 3. newly released pictures show plant workers, now heroes throughout japan , struggling to restore power. the lights are finally on in the control room in number 3, but workers are still evaluating damage to various pumps before turning them on.

    >> that is really the key to bringing the situation under control, getting water pumped into each one of these buildings, both to the reactor and to the spent fuel pools.

    >> reporter: and, brian, to help families with small children, the government announced it will make bottled water available throughout the affected area.

    >> robert bazell in tokyo tonight.

msnbc.com news services

Radiation leaking from Japan's tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant has caused Tokyo's tap water to exceed safety standards for infants to drink, officials said Wednesday, sending anxiety levels soaring over the nation's food and water supply.

Residents cleared store shelves of bottled water after Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said levels of radioactive iodine in tap water were more than twice what is considered safe for babies. Officials begged those in the city to buy only what they needed, saying hoarding could hurt the thousands of people without any water in areas devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

"I've never seen anything like this," clerk Toru Kikutaka said, surveying the downtown Tokyo supermarket where the entire stock of bottled water sold out almost immediately after the news broke, despite a limit of two, two-liter bottles per customer.

The unsettling new development affecting Japan's largest city, home to around 13 million people, added to growing fears over the nation's food supply.

Radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant has seeped into raw milk, seawater and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips, from areas around the plant. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it was halting imports of Japanese dairy and produce from the region near the facility. Hong Kong went further and required that Japan perform safety checks on meat, eggs and seafood before accepting those products.

Officials are still struggling to stabilize the nuclear plant, which on Wednesday belched black smoke from Unit 3 and forced the evacuation of workers, further delaying attempts to make needed repairs. The plant, 140 miles (220 kilometers) north of Tokyo, has been leaking radiation since the quake and tsunami knocked out its crucial cooling systems.

The crisis is emerging as the world's most expensive natural disaster on record, likely to cost up to $309 billion, according to a new government estimate. Police say an estimated 18,000 people were killed.

Concerns about food safety spread Wednesday to Tokyo after officials said tap water showed elevated radiation levels: 210 becquerels of iodine-131 per liter of water — more than twice the recommended limit of 100 becquerels per liter for infants. Another measurement taken later at a different site showed the level was 190 becquerels per liter. The recommended limit for adults is 300 becquerels.

"It is really scary. It is like a vicious negative spiral from the nuclear disaster," said Etsuko Nomura, a mother of two children ages 2 and 5. "We have contaminated milk and vegetables, and now tap water in Tokyo, and I'm wondering what's next."

Infants are particularly vulnerable to radioactive iodine, which can cause thyroid cancer, experts say. The limits refer to sustained consumption rates, and officials urged calm, saying parents should stop giving the tap water to babies, but that it was no problem if the infants already had consumed small amounts.

They said the levels posed no immediate health risk for older children or adults.

"Even if you drink this water for one year, it will not affect people's health," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

Dr. Harold Swartz, a professor of radiology and medicine at Dartmouth Medical School in the U.S., said the radiation amounts being reported in the water are too low to pose any real risk, even to infants who are being fed water-based formula or to breast-fed infants whose mothers drink tap water.

Although the amounts are well above established limits, that doesn't automatically mean there's a health threat, he said.

"We live in a world that has natural background radiation that's many times greater than the amounts we're talking about here," Swartz said.

Still, because it's easy to avoid tap water, it makes sense for Japanese parents with infants to do so, he said.

Radioactive iodine is also short-lived, with a half-life of eight days — the length of time it takes for half of it to break down harmlessly.

Richard Wakeford, a public health radiologist at the University of Manchester in Britain, blamed the spike in radiation on a shift in winds from the nuclear plant toward Tokyo. He predicted lower levels in coming days once the wind shifts back to normal patterns. "I imagine that bottled water is now quite popular in Tokyo," he said.

Tokyo's municipal government said it would distribute 240,000 bottles of water to households with infants. They estimated that there are currently 80,000 babies in the affected area, with each infant getting three bottles of 550 milliliters.

Edano pleaded with shoppers to restrict purchases of bottled water to the bare necessity, urging them to think of tsunami victims in need.

"We have to consider Miyagi, where there is no drinking water at all," he said, referring to a stricken region. "Under these conditions, we would appreciate it if people would avoid buying more water than they need."

The latest data showed sharp increases in radioactivity levels in a range of vegetables. In an area about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of the nuclear plant, levels for one locally grown leafy green called kukitachina measured 82 times the government limit for radioactive cesium and 11 times the limit for iodine.

The death toll from the disaster continued to rise, with more than 9,500 bodies counted and more than 16,000 people listed as missing.

Japan Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame said the government was "swiftly releasing information that is certain and not speculative" within Japan, but acknowledged it is behind in releasing information to foreign countries."

Experts have said tiny radioactive particles, measured by a network of monitoring stations as they spread eastwards from Japan across the Pacific, North America, the Atlantic and to Europe, were far too low to cause any harm to humans.

"It's only a matter of days before it disperses in the entire northern hemisphere," said Andrea Stahl, a senior scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

With supplies of fuel and ice dwindling, Japanese officials have abandoned the traditional practice of cremation in favor of quick, simple burials . Some are interred in bare plywood caskets and others in blue plastic tarps, with no time to build proper coffins. The bodies will be dug up and cremated once crematoriums catch up with the glut, officials assured families.

In Higashimatsushima in Miyagi prefecture, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, soldiers lowered plywood coffins into the ground, saluting each casket.

Some relatives placed flowers on the graves. Most remained stoic, folding hands in prayer. Two young girls wept inconsolably, hugged tightly by their father.

"I hope their spirits will rest in peace here at this temporary place," said mourner Katsuko Oguni, 42.

Masaru Yamagata, a Higashimatsushima official, said the crematorium cannot keep up with demand.

"Giving the grieving families coffins is the most we can do right now," Yamagata said. "Every day, more dead bodies are found, and we need more coffins quickly."

Hundreds of thousands remained homeless, squeezed into temporary shelters without heat, warm food or medicine and no idea what to call home after the colossal wave swallowed up communities along the coast.

The tsunami also heavily damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility, with explosions and fires in four of the plant's six reactors sending radioactive steam into the air.

Progress in cooling down the troubled plant has been intermittent, disrupted by rises in radiation, elevated pressure in reactors and overheated storage pools.

One of the workers was exposed to a high radiation dose that may increase the risk of cancer, a U.N. atomic agency official said Wednesday.

Japanese authorities have also told the International Atomic Energy Agency two prefectures near the crippled plant — Chiba and Ibaraki — were advised to monitor seafood products, the official, Graham Andrew, said.

Andrew said Japanese authorities had told the agency radiation dose rates at the plant were decreasing, but suggested iodine and cesium contamination in nearby areas had risen.

The IAEA also had information about 18 workers at the site which had been exposed to radiation since the accident, including one who got a dose rate of about 0.1 sieverts (106.3 millisieverts), although no medical treatment was required.

The agency did not say when it happened. The average dose for a nuclear plant worker is 50 millisieverts over five years.

The operator of Fukushima said last week it had raised the limit for the emergency work to 100 millisieverts an hour.

"The 0.1 sievert which you have there is certainly not a low dose and the individual may have a greater risk of certain cancer in the future...So it is something to be avoided, it is a high dose," Andrew said.

The plant's operator had restored circuitry to bring power to all six units and turned on lights at Unit 3 late Tuesday for the first time since the disaster — a significant step toward restarting the cooling system.

It had hoped to restore power to cooling pumps at the unit within days, but experts warned the work included the risk of sparking fires as electricity is restored through equipment potentially damaged in the tsunami.

And then on Wednesday, black smoke suddenly billowed from Unit 3, prompting another evacuation of workers from the plant in the afternoon, Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials said. They said there had been no corresponding spike in radiation at the plant.

Hidehiko Nishiyama of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said officials did not know the reason for the smoke.

Tokyo Electric manager Teruaki Kobayashi said the pump for Unit 3 had been tested and was working Wednesday. But officials weren't sure when they would be able to turn the power on to the pump.

Nuclear agency official Kenji Kawasaki said workers would not be allowed to return to the plant until Thursday morning, since smoke was still rising as of late Wednesday night.

As a precaution, officials have evacuated residents within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the plant and advised those up to 19 miles (30 kilometers) away to stay indoors to minimize exposure.

And for the first time, Edano, the chief Cabinet secretary, suggested that those downwind of the plant should stay indoors with the windows shut tight — even if just outside the zone.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Map: Japan earthquake

  1. Above: Map Japan earthquake
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  3. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Timeline Crisis in Japan

Explainer: The 10 deadliest earthquakes in recorded history

  • A look at the worst earthquakes in recorded history, in loss of human life. (The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsumani that affected eastern Japan is not included because the fatalities caused, about 15,000, are fewer than those resulting from the temblors listed below.) Sources: United States Geological Survey, Encyclopedia Britannica

  • 1: Shensi, China, Jan. 23, 1556

    Magnitude about 8, about 830,000 deaths.

    This earthquake occurred in the Shaanxi province (formerly Shensi), China, about 50 miles east-northeast of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi. More than 830,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Damage extended as far away as about 270 miles northeast of the epicenter, with reports as far as Liuyang in Hunan, more than 500 miles away. Geological effects reported with this earthquake included ground fissures, uplift, subsidence, liquefaction and landslides. Most towns in the damage area reported city walls collapsed, most to all houses collapsed and many of the towns reported ground fissures with water gushing out.

  • 2: Tangshan, China, July 27, 1976

    Chinese Earthquake
    Keystone  /  Getty Images
    1976: Workers start rebuilding work following earthquake damage in the Chinese city of Tangshan, 100 miles east of Pekin, with a wrecked train carriage behind them. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
    Magnitude 7.5. Official casualty figure is 255,000 deaths. Estimated death toll as high as 655,000.

    Damage extended as far as Beijing. This is probably the greatest death toll from an earthquake in the last four centuries, and the second greatest in recorded history.

  • 3: Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 9, 1138

    Magnitude not known, about 230,000 deaths.

    Contemporary accounts said the walls of Syria’s second-largest city crumbled and rocks cascaded into the streets. Aleppo’s citadel collapsed, killing hundreds of residents. Although Aleppo was the largest community affected by the earthquake, it likely did not suffer the worst of the damage. European Crusaders had constructed a citadel at nearby Harim, which was leveled by the quake. A Muslim fort at Al-Atarib was destroyed as well, and several smaller towns and manned forts were reduced to rubble. The quake was said to have been felt as far away as Damascus, about 220 miles to the south. The Aleppo earthquake was the first of several occurring between 1138 and 1139 that devastated areas in northern Syria and western Turkey.

  • 4: Sumatra, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2004

    Aerial images show the extent of the devastation in Meulaboh
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    MEULABOH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 29: In this handout photo taken from a print via the Indonesian Air Force, the scene of devastation in Meulaboh, the town closest to the Sunday's earthquake epicentre, is pictured from the air on December 29, 2004, Meulaboh, Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. The western coastal town in Aceh Province, only 60 kilometres north-east of the epicentre, has been the hardest hit by sunday's underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Officials expected to find at least 10,000 killed which would amount to a quarter of Meulaboh's population. Three-quarters of Sumatra's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out after the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. (Photo by Indonesian Air Force via Getty Images)

    Magnitude 9.1, 227,898 deaths.

    This was the third largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the largest since the 1964 Prince William Sound, Alaska temblor. In total, 227,898 people were killed or were missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in South Asia and East Africa. (In January 2005, the death toll was 286,000. In April 2005, Indonesia reduced its estimate for the number missing by over 50,000.)

  • 5: Haiti, Jan 12, 2010

    Haitians walk through collapsed building
    Jean-philippe Ksiazek  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Haitians walk through collapsed buildings near the iron market in Port-au-Prince on January 31, 2010. Quake-hit Haiti will need at least a decade of painstaking reconstruction, aid chiefs and donor nations warned, as homeless, scarred survivors struggled today to rebuild their lives. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK (Photo credit should read JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

    Magnitude 7.0. According to official estimates, 222,570 people killed.

    According to official estimates, 300,000 were also injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti. This includes at least 4 people killed by a local tsunami in the Petit Paradis area near Leogane. Tsunami waves were also reported at Jacmel, Les Cayes, Petit Goave, Leogane, Luly and Anse a Galets.

  • 6: Damghan, Iran, Dec. 22, 856

    Magnitude not known, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake struck a 200-mile stretch of northeast Iran, with the epicenter directly below the city of Demghan, which was at that point the capital city. Most of the city was destroyed as well as the neighboring areas. Approximately 200,000 people were killed.

  • 7: Haiyuan, Ningxia , China, Dec. 16, 1920

    7.8 magnitude, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake brought total destruction to the Lijunbu-Haiyuan-Ganyanchi area. Over 73,000 people were killed in Haiyuan County. A landslide buried the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County. More than 30,000 people were killed in Guyuan County. Nearly all the houses collapsed in the cities of Longde and Huining. About 125 miles of surface faulting was seen from Lijunbu through Ganyanchi to Jingtai. There were large numbers of landslides and ground cracks throughout the epicentral area. Some rivers were dammed, others changed course.

  • 8: Ardabil, Iran, March. 23, 893

    Magnitude not known, about 150,000 deaths

    The memories of the massive Damghan earthquake (see above) had barely faded when only 37 years later, Iran was again hit by a huge earthquake. This time it cost 150,000 lives and destroyed the largest city in the northwestern section of the country. The area was again hit by a fatal earthquake in 1997.

  • 9: Kanto, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923

    Kanto Damage
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images
    1923: High-angle view of earthquake and fire damage on Hongokucho Street and the Kanda District, taken from the Yamaguchi Bank building after the Kanto earthquake, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    7.9 magnitude, 142,800 deaths.

    This earthquake brought extreme destruction in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, both from the temblor and subsequent firestorms, which burned about 381,000 of the more than 694,000 houses that were partially or completely destroyed. Although often known as the Great Tokyo Earthquake (or the Great Tokyo Fire), the damage was most severe in Yokohama. Nearly 6 feet of permanent uplift was observed on the north shore of Sagami Bay and horizontal displacements of as much as 15 feet were measured on the Boso Peninsula.

  • 10: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Oct. 5, 1948

    7.3 magnitude, 110,000 deaths.

    This quake brought extreme damage in Ashgabat (Ashkhabad) and nearby villages, where almost all the brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged and freight trains were derailed. Damage and casualties also occurred in the Darreh Gaz area in neighboring Iran. Surface rupture was observed both northwest and southeast of Ashgabat. Many sources list the casualty total at 10,000, but a news release from the newly independent government on Dec. 9, 1988, advised that the correct death toll was 110,000. (Turkmenistan had been part of the Soviet Union, which tended to downplay the death tolls from man-made and natural disasters.)

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