Continued from page 1

Bodies are piling up in some of devastated communities and badly decomposing even amid chilly rain and snow.

“The recent bodies — we can’t show them to the families. The faces have been purple, which means they are starting to decompose,” says Shuji Horaguchi, a disaster relief official setting up a center to process bodies in Natori, on the outskirts of Sendai. “Some we’re finding now have been in the water for a long time; they’re not in good shape. Crabs and fish have eaten parts.”

Before the disasters, safety drills were seldom if ever practiced, and information about radiation exposure rarely given in Futuba, a small town in the shadow of the nuclear plant, according to 29-year-old Tsugumi Hasegawa. In the aftermath, she is living in a shelter with her 4-year-old daughter and feeling bewildered.

“I still have no idea what the numbers they are giving about radiation levels mean. It’s all so confusing. And I wonder if they aren’t playing down the dangers to keep us from panicking. I don’t know who to trust,” said Ms. Hasegawa, crammed with 1,400 people into a gymnasium on the outskirts of Fukushima city, 80 miles from the plant.

Another nuclear safety official acknowledged Sunday that the government only belatedly realized the need to give potassium iodide to those living within 12 miles of the nuclear complex.

The pills help reduce chances of thyroid cancer, one of the diseases that may develop from radiation exposure, by preventing the body from absorbing radioactive iodine. The official, Kazuma Yokota, said the explosion that occurred while venting the plant’s Unit 3 reactor last Sunday should have triggered the distribution, but the order only came three days later.

“We should have made this decision and announced it sooner,” Mr. Yokota told reporters at the emergency command center in the city of Fukushima. “It is true that we had not foreseen a disaster of these proportions. We had not practiced or trained for something this bad. We must admit that we were not fully prepared.”

The higher reactor pressure may have been caused by a tactic meant to reduce temperatures — the pumping of seawater into the vessel, said Mr. Kuroda, the Tokyo Electric manager.

Using seawater to cool the reactors and storage ponds was a desperate measure adopted early this past week; Unit 4’s pool was sprayed again Sunday, and a system to inject water into Unit 2’s reactor was repaired. Experts have said for days that seawater inevitably would corrode and ruin the reactors and other finely milled machine parts, effectively turning the plant into scrap.

Mr. Edano, the government spokesman, recognized the inevitable Sunday: “It is obviously clear that Fukushima Dai-ichi in no way will be in a condition to be restarted.”

Contamination of food and water compounds the government’s difficulties, heightening the broader public’s sense of dread about safety. Consumers in markets snapped up bottled water, shunned spinach from Ibaraki — the prefecture where the tainted spinach was found — and overall expressed concern about food safety.

Experts have said the amounts of iodine detected in milk, spinach and water pose no discernible risks to public health unless consumed in enormous quantities over a long time. Iodine breaks down quickly, after eight days, minimizing its harmfulness, unlike other radioactive isotopes such as cesium-137 or uranium-238, which remain in the environment for decades or longer.

Rain forecast for the Fukushima area also could further localize the contamination, bringing the radiation to the ground closer to the plant.

The governor of Fukushima, where milk contaminated with iodine was found at one farm Friday, urged dairy farmers across the prefecture to halt all sales — just short of a ban in consensus-driven, polite Japan.

Mr. Edano tried to reassure the public for a second day running Sunday. “If you eat it once, or twice or even for several days, it’s not just that it’s not an immediate threat to health, it’s that even in the future it is not a risk,” Mr. Edano said. “Experts say there is no threat to human health.”

Story Continues →