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World & Nation

In Japan, a glimmer of progress, a miracle rescue and rising food fears

Workers at a crippled Japanese nuclear plant said they succeeded in connecting two reactors to the power grid Sunday, raising the possibility it could restore vital cooling systems to the overheated facilities.

The glimmer of progress came on a day police miraculously rescued an elderly woman and her teenage grandson trapped under rubble for nine days after a devastating earthquake and tsunami leveled their home.

But fears are emerging about radiation contamination in Japan’s food supplies.

Photos: Japan’s crisis

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A day after officials said they discovered higher-than-normal radioactivity in batches of milk and spinach, the Associated Press reported Sunday that the contamination had spread to canola and chrysanthemum greens. Tokyo’s tap water, where traces of radioactive iodine turned up Friday, now has cesium. Rain and dust are tainted too, the AP reported. Fava beans exported by Japan to Taiwan were found to have small amounts of radiation, according to an official of Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council.

Although Japan’s Health Ministry said the contamination levels were not immediately harmful to humans, the discovery stirred new angst in a public already weary from earthquake aftershocks, blackouts and the threat of a full-fledged nuclear meltdown.

Early Sunday, consumers at some central Tokyo markets were lining up to buy milk, which already had been in short supply after milk-carton factories were knocked out by the quake and tsunami.

“The government keeps urging people to stay calm, but there’s a sense of growing anxiety,” said Hiroaki Nakajima, an employee at the Kimuraya supermarket.

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Even before news of the tainted foods, he said, people were hoarding supplies of basics such as instant noodles, water and rice. Now, he said, customers ask where the milk and spinach come from.

A series of disasters have been battering Japan since a record-setting earthquake struck March 11 and a tsunami slammed into the northeastern coast. At least 8,199 people were killed and 12,722 are unaccounted for, according to police.

Astonishingly, two of the missing were found alive Sunday by rescue workers in Ishinomaki city in Miyagi prefecture.

Sumi Abe, 80, and her 16-year-old grandson, Jin Abe, were in their kitchen when the quake and tsunami hit and demolished their house. They were trapped in the kitchen but managed to stay alive by wrapping themselves in towels and eating yogurt and drinking water and milk that were in the refrigerator. Jin Abe dug his way out of the rubble onto the roof, where he flagged down rescuers. The two were later airlifted to a hospital.

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Public broadcaster NHK showed a gray-haired Sumi Abe wearing glasses wrapped in a blanket and surrounded by rescuers. She said she was unhurt and was able to say her name.

The grandmother had been unable to free herself after her legs were wedged under the refrigerator. Her grandson had hypothermia and told doctors that he had almost no feeling in his left leg.

There were signs of progress at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant about 150 miles north of Tokyo after authorities said they connected reactors Nos. 1 and 2 to the power grid, crucial to reactivating their cooling systems.

“The electricity is now flowing and workers are testing the equipment,” said Yoshinori Mori, a spokesman for the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co.

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Even with power, engineers face the possibility that the reactors’ cooling systems were damaged by the quake and tsunami. Workers made progress on placing a high-voltage line near the remaining four reactors, but it could be several days before they receive electricity.

“I don’t think it is a sure thing at all. All the reactors were exposed to shock, so who knows if the piping is still intact?” said Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

In a news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, the Japanese government’s top spokesman, said it was too soon to tell if workers were stabilizing the atomic emergency.

“Our recent efforts seem, to some extent, to have helped halt a deterioration of the situation,” said Edano, who suggested the plant be decommissioned. “But the situation remains volatile. We’re not taking the optimistic view that things will steadily improve.”

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Lyman and other experts nonetheless took the restoration of power as a good sign. It “is absolutely a turning point” in the battle to cool the reactors, USC nuclear physicist Najmedin Meshkati said.

However, experts were not surprised that inspectors found contaminated food. After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in the Soviet Union, a major cause of the thyroid disease suffered by children came from consumption of tainted foods, said Dr. Glenn D. Braunstein, chairman of the department of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Japanese health officials have dismissed such fears, saying that the amount of radiation detected away from the Fukushima plant is minor. Even so, traces of radiation in the food supply are a matter of concern.

The amount of radiation found in the milk, if consumed for a year, is equivalent to levels found in one CT medical scan. The spinach contamination is equal to one-fifth the radioactivity in a CT scan. Those levels could be harmful to children, Braunstein said.

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“Children are growing and their organs are growing, so they’re very susceptible to radiation effects,” he said. “They really need to discard the milk from around the reactor disaster.”

Dr. Daniel Zurosky, director of radiation safety at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, said contamination could also turn up in fish — a staple of the Japanese diet — from radioactive material that has entered the water, become part of the food chain and is consumed by fish.

He said it would be vital for Japanese health authorities to monitor food. After Chernobyl, “they weren’t very forthcoming about radiation. They had a lot of farmland around there.”

Yet there is widespread public perception that Japan hasn’t issued timely and complete information since the outbreak of the nuclear disaster. And the news of food contamination brought a flood of new complaints and worries.

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“The biggest problem is that we’re not getting the whole picture from the government, from the media,” said Takamasa Edogawa, 76, standing with his hands thrust into his jacket pockets, the first in a line of about 40 people waiting to get into a Yoshiya supermarket in Tokyo on Sunday. “We generally know where the spinach and milk were from. But we don’t know exactly where. And if the wind changes, other areas could be affected by radiation.”

Similar feelings of helplessness were echoed in Japan’s northeast coast.

In Miyako, Souichiro Tachibana, a teacher who watched his house burn down after the tsunami hit his town, said officials haven’t offered a lot of options. “Nowhere is safe,” he said. “Teach me what I can do. I’m listening. Where can we run away to?”

Yet at the gymnasium of the Miyako Elementary School, the last day or two have seen conditions go from famine to feast as more supplies have arrived. “Please take some food,” volunteer Kiyohiko Sasaki said to visitors.

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“We’ve been here eight days,” said Rikuko Tachibana, 61, sitting on blankets provided by the city, amid neat piles of clothing and belongings on the floor and evacuees sitting about, bored.

“At the beginning, there wasn’t enough food, and it was always rice balls,” Tachibana said. “Now there’s too much food. And it’s got more variety. We had cream soup today, boiled eggs, soba noodles, strawberry jam. And I have some fruit bread here.”

Photos: Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis

A local company has donated thick tatami mats for the evacuees to sit and sleep on, lending a little civility to the basketball courts. Evacuees carefully remove their slippers before stepping on the woven grass mats.

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Shoichi Nakamura, 58, an evacuee sleeping at the school, said she stayed in the shelter because there’s no heat or power at her home, and she feels more secure with other people nearby during aftershocks, such as the magnitude 5.7 temblor that struck off the Fukushima coast just after 10 a.m. Sunday.

Rikuko Tachibana said she knew about the problems at the Fukushima nuclear complex but often preferred to talk and gossip rather than watch the news. “All I can say is, we’re cheering the nuclear workers on,” she said. “I want them to please do their best. And foreign governments and experts, please, please help us.”

mark.magnier@latimes.com

don.lee@latimes.com

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Magnier reported from Miyako and Lee and special correspondent Kenji Hall reported from Tokyo. Times staff writers Thomas H. Maugh II, Roan and Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles and David Pierson in Beijing contributed to this report.


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