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Radiation levels remain worrisome near Tokyo

Suburbs’ water supply still has high iodine

- - Thursday, March 24, 2011

SHIZUOKA, Japan | A day after he warned that Tokyo water was unsafe for babies because of high radiation levels, the governor of the capital region marched reporters to the municipal water plant and drank a full glass of tap water.

"Tokyo water always tastes good," Shintaro Ishihara said, raising the glass and swallowing in one gulp.

The governor's publicity stunt was designed to show that radiation levels in Tokyo water had returned to normal and were safe for adults as well as babies.

He acted 24 hours after his warning caused Tokyo residents to strip store shelves of bottled water, prompting panic among a population still shaken two weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused radiation leaks from a crippled nuclear-power plant about 150 miles away.

While officials declared Tokyo water safe, authorities in the city's suburbs discovered water supplies with radioactive iodine nearly three times the normal level for infants. That indicated radiation is continuing to drift from the Fukushima nuclear plant across the Tokyo region.

"The high level of iodine was caused by the nuclear disaster," said Kyoji Narita, a regional water official. "There is no question about it."

In the frigid north of Japan near the hardest-hit areas, about 660,000 households still had no water, and more than 200,000 had no electricity, officials said.

One bright spot for the north came with the news of the rescue of a baby porpoise found splashing in a swamped rice paddy nearly a mile inland near the devastated coastal city of Sendai. Rescuers returned the porpoise to the sea.

Many Japanese, who have long enjoyed a relatively safe and healthy life of abundance on their island nation, are struggling to adjust with sudden shortages of basic goods. Many are confused by an array of unfamiliar scientific words relating to nuclear radiation.

TV channels frequently show radiation readings along with weather forecasts, and nuclear scientists dominate the airwaves with charts trying to explain the effects of iodine, cesium and other radioactive elements.

Two workers at the overheating Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant were treated at a hospital for what doctors called "beta ray burns" after stepping in contaminated water while laying electrical cables in one reactor unit, officials said.

The water seeped over the top of their boots and onto their legs, said Takashi Kurita, spokesman for plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Radiation has seeped into raw milk, seawater and 11 kinds of vegetables, including spinach, broccoli, cauliflower and turnips, grown in areas around the plant, wiping out most of the winter crop in a region already facing acute food shortages.

Singapore and Australia joined the United States on Thursday in halting imports of Japanese dairy and produce from regions near the nuclear reactors. Hong Kong said it would require that Japan perform safety checks on meat, eggs and seafood, and Canada said it would upgrade controls on imports of Japanese food products.

Concerns also spread to Europe. In Iceland, officials said they measured trace amounts of radioactive iodine in the air but assured residents it was "less than a millionth" of levels found in European countries in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.