22,000 Dead or Missing in Japan

Troubles persist in Japan: the death toll is rising, workers were evacuated from the No. 3 reactor, and high radiation levels were found in food and milk. Lennox Samuels reports.

03.21.11 1:20 PM ET

Japan has begun to limp out of its nuclear crisis with the restoration of power to four of six crippled reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, confirmation that water temperature at two of those reactors has fallen below boiling point, and a rise in oil refinery capacity to 80 percent of pre-quake levels. But true to a pattern in efforts to stabilize the plant, progress comes with asterisks: radiation levels rose at the compound, and gray smoke shot from the troublesome No. 3 reactor, while authorities called for a halt in shipments of vegetables and milk found to have higher than normal radiation levels.

Electricity has been restored to numbers 1, 2, 5 and 6 reactors, with numbers 3 and 4 scheduled to be connected on Thursday. And officials said that overall radiation levels have been declining since Sunday. But Tokyo Electric Power Company reported that workers at the facility were evacuated after smoke was seen rising from reactor No 3 around 4 p.m. Monday. Local firefighters were alerted. The smoke appeared to be coming from the area where a storage pool for spent nuclear fuel is located. “We don’t know if there’s a link between the smoke and [the pool]” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. “Radiation readings show the situation is not turning for the worse.” Within hours, the smoke appeared to be subsiding.

The official death toll from the quake and tsunami has now risen to 8,805. With 13,000 people still missing, the final tally could approach 22,000.

The administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan has asked farmers in four prefectures—Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma—to stop shipping spinach and another leafy vegetable called kakina, after finding above-normal radiation readings in the produce. The government also asked Fukushima dairy farms to stop shipping raw milk, for the same reason. “It does not mean people who eat these products will become sick immediately,” Edano said. “This is a precautionary measure.” In addition, the spokesman said, tap water in the village of Iitate, also in Fukushima, has been found to contain radioactive matter, iodine-131, above regulation levels—according to the health ministry as high as three times the level permissible under government regulations. Edano said people in the village should refrain from drinking the water—although “if they drink it will not be harmful.” The water is safe for washing and bathing, he added. Some 3,700 people typically use the water.

The smoke seen at reactor No. 3 is the latest malady to afflict the unit, which has become virtually a household name in Japan given the catastrophes that have stricken it.

Regarding the spinach and kakina, he conceded that “there can be some health risks if readings are measured over a long time.” The government said spinach, kakina and milk producers affected by the ban will be compensated later, depending on the “length and scope of the shipment restriction” and that most of that compensation would come from TEPCO, the nuclear plant operator.

How long the various government measures last, Edano said, depends on what authorities discern after monitoring radiation levels. “Please don’t panic,” he said at a press conference.

The smoke seen at reactor No. 3 is the latest malady to afflict the unit, which has become virtually a household name in Japan given the catastrophes that have stricken it—from cooling problems to exposed fuel rods to a hydrogen explosion. Plant workers have had the toughest time trying to bring No. 3 under control. It and reactor No.4 are scheduled to be connected Tuesday to electricity distribution panels. Although power has been restored to the other reactors, workers have not yet been able to start using pumps that normally deliver water to cool the reactors. TEPCO has been using seawater in the interim. Pressure at Nos. 5 and 6—the least-affected reactors—has now dropped to a manageable level, officials said.

Away from the metrics-laden discussion of radiation levels, the nation remained gripped by the rescue tale of a 16-year-old boy, Jin Abe, and his 80-year-old grandmother, Sumi Abe, who were rescued nine days after the quake struck on March 11. Reporters took turns interviewing the teenager, wearing a white surgical mask and lying in a hospital bed, about his ordeal. The two were found in the debris of their house in Ishinomaki City. The youth, now being treated for hypothermia, said he does not recall what the tsunami looked like, that he was trapped in a space with just enough room to crawl, and that he and his grandmother passed the time talking to each other.

Authorities said that with Japan's oil-refining capacity heading back to normal, the fuel shortage in the hardest-hit parts of the country will start to ease. Operations at six of 27 refineries were suspended after the earthquake. Gas shortages in the Tokyo area are expected to end in a matter of days. With the arrival of good news, speculation has turned to what it will cost to rebuild the nation. Estimates are ranging from $50 billion to $200 billion. The latter figure would be more than 3 percent of the annual economic output of the world’s third-largest economy.

Lennox Samuels is a Newsweek/Daily Beast editor based in Bangkok. He covered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.