Fukushima: Police in white moon suits fitted with Geiger counters struggled on Thursday to reach the bodies of hundreds killed by Japan`s monster tsunami, their work slowed by radiation leaking from the country`s nearby stricken nuclear plant.
The crisis at the plant, which has compelled Japanese officials to increasingly turn to international help in stopping the leaks, has sometimes overshadowed the other disaster wrought by a March 11 tsunami: the decimation of hundreds of miles (kilometres) of northeastern coastline, the displacement of tens of thousands and the deaths of an estimated 19,000 people.
"We find bodies everywhere — in cars, in rivers, under debris and in streets," a police official from the hard-hit Fukushima prefecture said on Thursday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to reporters.
Efforts to recover the bodies from the 12-mile (20-kilometer) evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant have been slowed by the scale of destruction and a wasteland of debris, but also by fears of radiation. Police in that prefecture dressed in full radiation suits grabbed 19 corpses from the rubble on Wednesday, the police official said.
Authorities declined to say how many bodies might still be buried in the evacuation zone, but local media have estimated hundreds remain.
Each officer wears a radiation detector and must leave the area whenever its alarm goes off — a frequent occurrence that has often dragged the operation to a halt, the official said.
"We want to recover bodies quickly, but also must ensure the safety of police officers against nuclear radiation," he said.
Officers were forced to give up trying to recover one corpse on Sunday after radiation on it triggered the alarm.
There are also concerns about the disposal of bodies since Japanese tend to cremate their dead, and fires can spread radiation. The Health Ministry recommends that the bodies should all be cleaned and those with even small levels of radiation should be handled only by people wearing suits, gloves and masks.
Police in affected prefectures have so far recovered more than 11,000 bodies, but estimate that at least 19,500 are dead.
Radiation concerns have also complicated efforts to bring the plant itself under control. Contaminated water pooling inside the complex has begun to leak into the ground and ocean and has restricted where crews can work, and puts them in the uncomfortable position of having to pump in more water to continue cooling the reactors while simultaneously pumping out contaminated water.
Japanese officials have struggled to stabilise the plant and are increasingly seeking help to stem and identify leaks. French, American and IAEA experts and robots are all in Japan or on their way.
Not only are officials struggling to get water out of the plant, but they are also beginning to run short of places to put it. Operations at one unit were suspended earlier in the week because its storage tank was filling up. The country`s nuclear safety agency said the plant operator is considering a variety of stopgap measures, including bringing in more storage tanks, loading it onto a tanker ship and building a new makeshift waste facility.
Experts in eliminating contaminated water from French nuclear giant Areva arrived in Japan on Wednesday. France is heavily dependent on nuclear power and has offered regular evaluations of the fight in Fukushima. President Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president of the Group of 20 nations, also has arrived in Tokyo to speak with the Japanese Prime Minister.
"The amount of water is enormous, and we need any wisdom available," said nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama. The US has also sent a remote-controlled robot, and officials from the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, said they expect to use it within a few days for evaluating areas with high radiation.
Because of the radiation leaks a mandatory evacuation zone around the plant has been ordered, and authorities have also recommended people in the 20-mile (30-kilometer) band might want to leave, too.
Some have suggested the mandatory zone should be expanded since the International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Wednesday that radiation levels in a village outside even the voluntary band registered at twice the threshold the agency recommends for evacuations.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said authorities are carefully monitoring the radiation in village of Iitate, 25 miles (40 kilometres) from the plant.
"But we believe the situation does not require any immediate change to our current evacuation policy," he added.
Contamination from the plant has also been seeping into the sea, posing no threat to human health because fishing and swimming aren`t allowed in the vicinity but sparking concern about the continued leaks, Nishiyama said.
However, radiation levels are rising. Seawater some 360 yards (330 meters) from the shore south of the plant measured 4,385 times the legal limit, up from 3,355 times the allowed amount the previous day, officials from plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co said.
Experts say the radioactive particles are unlikely to build up significantly in fish, and in any case are expected to dissipate quickly in the vast Pacific Ocean.