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U.S. halts Japan food imports, Tokyo water contaminated

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March 23, 2011, 9 a.m. | World — by Associated Press

In this photo taken on Wednesday, March 16, 2011 and released on Thursday, March 17 by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), white smoke billows from the badly damaged No. 4 unit of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture. A nearly completed new power line could restore cooling systems in Japan's tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant, its operator TEPCO said Thursday, raising some hope of easing the crisis that has threatened a meltdown and already spawned dangerous radiation surges. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

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TOKYO, March 23 (Reuters) - Radiation danger from Japan's tsunami-smashed nuclear plant loomed on Wednesday with water in Tokyo showing hazardous levels for infants and the United States becoming the first nation to block food imports. Tokyo authorities said water at a purification plant for the capital of 13 million people had 210 becquerels of radioactive iodine -- more than twice the safety level for infants.

"This is without doubt, an effect of the Fukushima Daiichi plant," a Tokyo metropolitan government official said, in reference to the damaged nuclear plant 250 km (150 miles) north of the city.

Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, however, said the radiation level posed no immediate health risk and water could still be used.

"But for infants under age one, I would like them to refrain from using tap water to dilute baby formula," he said.

Crystallising international concern, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it was stopping imports of milk, vegetable and fruit from four prefectures in Japan's crisis-hit northeast.

South Korea may be next to ban Japanese food after the world's worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. France this week asked the European Commission to look into harmonising controls on radioactivity in imports from Japan.


At the six-reactor Fukushima plant, crippled by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami, engineers are battling to cool reactors to contain further contamination and avert a meltdown.

In a rapidly widening problem, Japan said on Wednesday above-safety radiation levels had been discovered in 11 types of vegetables from the area, in addition to milk and water.

Officials still insisted, however, that there was no major danger to humans and urged the world not to over react.

"We will explain to countries the facts and we hope they will take logical measures based on them," Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano, who has been the government's public face during the disaster, told a news conference.

The Asian nation's worst crisis since World War Two may have caused $300 billion damage, sent shock waves through global financial markets, and left nearly 23,000 people dead or missing, mostly from flattened coastal towns.

More than a quarter of a million people are living in shelters, while rescuers and sniffer dogs comb debris and mud looking for corpses and personal mementoes.

Worsened by widespread ignorance of the technicalities of radiation, public concern is rising around the world and radioactive particles have been found as far away as Iceland.

Japan has already halted shipment of some food from the area and told people there to stop eating leafy vegetables.

Asian neighbours are inspecting imports for contamination, and Taiwan advised boats to stop fishing in Japanese waters.

Although there has been progress in restoring power to the Fukushima site 13 days after the accident, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said it needed more time before it could say the reactors were stabilised.


DRAMA AT FUKUSHIMA

Technicians working inside an evacuation zone around the plant have successfully attached power cables to all six reactors and started a pump at one to cool overheating nuclear fuel rods.

Concern is high over reactor No. 1 after its temperature rose to near 400 degrees Celsius, above a design limit of 302.

As well as having its workers on the front line in highly dangerous circumstances, TEPCO is also facing accusations of a slow disaster response and questions over why it originally stored more uranium at the plant than it was designed to hold.

Vienna-based U.N. watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), expressed concern about a lack of information from Japanese authorities. It cited missing data on temperatures of spent fuel pools at the facility's reactors 1, 3 and 4.

"We continue to see radiation coming from the site ... and the question is where exactly is that coming from?" said a senior IAEA official, James Lyons.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was concerned about radioactive fallout affecting the U.S. 55,000 troops in and around Japan, many involved in a massive relief operation for Washington's close ally. "We're also deeply concerned about the wellbeing of our Japanese allies," he said.

Experts said tiny traces of 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 Andreas Stohl, a senior scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research


GLOBAL IMPACT

The Japan crisis has dealt a blow to the nuclear power industry around the world. Italy became the latest nation to re-assess its programme, announcing a one-year moratorium on site selection and building of plants.

Crisis in the world's third-biggest economy -- and its key position in global supply chains, especially for the auto and technology sectors -- has added to global market jitters, also affected by conflict in Libya and unrest in the Middle East.

Asian shares fell on Wednesday, with Tokyo's Nikkei shedding more than 1 percent as investors took profits from a two-session bounce. Japanese stocks are about 8 percent below their close on the day the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck.

Toyota said it would delay the launch in Japan of two additions to the Prius line-up, a wagon and a minivan, from the originally planned end-April due to production disruptions.

The tsunami and earthquake are the world's costliest ever natural disaster, with the government estimating damage at 15-25 trillion yen ($185 billion-$308 billion.

The upper end of that range would equate to about 6 percent of Japan's gross domestic product.

The official death toll has risen to 9,199, but with 13,786 people still reported missing, it is certain to rise.

There are reports dozens of survivors, mostly elderly, have died in hospitals and evacuation centres due to a lack of proper treatment, or simply because of the cold. It is winter in Japan.

At one sports arena in Minamisanriku where 1,500 evacuees are staying, old people crowded at a counter stacked with pills and bandages, while about 30 people slept on beds or on the floor in a makeshift clinic with doctors on standby.

"It's less a problem of medical supplies now, but a problem of finding out what medicine is lacking where and centralising that information," said Nobuyuki Maki, a doctor.

"Many places in this area haven't restored mobile phone connections yet so there are still problems with communication." (Additional reporting by Paul Eckert, Shinichi Saoshiro, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Yoko Kubota and Raju Gopalakrishnan in Tokyo, Jon Herskovitz and Chisa Fujioka in Minamisanriku; Frederik Dahl and Sylvia Westall in Vienna; Lisa Richwine in Washington; Alister Doyle in Oslo; Christopher Doering in Washington; Jonathan Standing in Taiwan; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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