TOKYO, Japan — A mysterious plume of smoke rising from a stricken reactor Monday cast a pall over talk of recovery from the devastation of earthquake, tsunami and fire that knocked out the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on March 11.
News that workers were restoring power to the cooling systems at the plant over the weekend was dampened when a gray cloud of smoke was spotted wafting from its No. 3 reactor.
The smoke began rising just as Prime Minister Naoto Kan sought to reassure the public, saying at a news conference, “I can’t say we are out of critical condition, but we are seeing the light to get out of crisis."
The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) reported that workers had to flee the site for fear of radioactivity and a possible explosion — similar to the one last week that blew the roof off one of the reactor.
Hours later once the smoke had cleared, workers had yet to return to the plant. “We shall consider the intention to go back to work or not after confirming the level of radioactivity,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the government's nuclear safety agency. He said he did not know what had caused the smoking.
More than 300 workers have been working tirelessly to contain the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, hoping to contain the radiation beyond the 20-mile “danger zone” that has been declared around the plant. The fear is that radiation may spread over a much wider area if the three crippled reactors are not cooled down soon enough.
Already — in yet another setback — "trace amounts” of radioactive iodine have been reported well outside the 20-mile radius.
Officials in Hitachi city 60 miles south of the Fukushima plant reported radioactive iodine at 27 times the acceptable level in spinach that was grown in the city. Technicians have recorded radioactive substances in surrounding regions from which the government is halting shipment of milk, spinach and other leafy vegetables.
Prime Minister Kan ordered the governors of the four hardest hit prefectures to restrict the shipments of vegetables and milk “detected to exceed the limit” of radioactive material. “In a wide area, we have across the board banned the shipments,” said a health official.
The loss of export markets for Japanese food jacked up the total cost of recovery from the earthquake and then the tsunami that swept over the northeastern coast on March 11. The World Bank estimated that recovery could cost $235 billion over a five-year period – nearly twice the estimate of $122 billion previously released by the government.
The human cost promises to be much higher. The national police now estimate 18,400 people lost their lives, including 3,400 deaths confirmed so far as thousands of rescue workers go through scenes of devastation up and down the northeast coast. The rest are simply listed as missing.
Officials have persisted, however, in minimizing the impact of setbacks.
“We have come to a situation that is close to getting the situation under control,” said Tsuburo Fukuyama, deputy chief cabinet secretary. “However, in the past days we have repeatedly faced a situation that was not predicted. We must remain attentive in dealing with the situation.”
“We consider the cooling is the most important matter we have to deal with,” Fukuyama said. “Our objective is to restore the power and function of the equipment and the environment.”
No, he added: “It would not be appropriate at this stage to say how long it will be.”
Nishiyama from the nuclear safety industry said that the radiation detected in the food does not pose an imminent problem. “Even if you consume the provisional regulation value, it would not have an effect on your health,” he said. “Even if you continued eating it for a year, you would be safe.”
International experts, however, offered differing perspectives. Peter Cordingly, spokesman for the World Health Organization in Manila, urged Japanese to be “cautious” about what they ate, advising they check the label on packaging in stores.
Many were doing just that. Jeffrey Tudor, a retired businessman in Tokyo, said that he and his wife were no longer buying spinach from regions north of Tokyo. “The Japanese are very careful about labeling,” he said. “We get vegetables from Shikoku,” the large island off the coast well south of here.
One official said he was “saddened” to hear that a restaurant in Singapore had banned the purchase of all food items from Japan. “I do understand we may not be able to ship vegetables and foodstuffs that exceed the value” of permissible radioactive substances, he said, “but food produced in other regions is perfectly safe.”