TOKYO, Japan — Fears that radiation had spread beyond the quake-crippled power plant in northeast Japan escalated Wednesday when high levels of iodine were discovered in Tokyo's tap water, rendering it too dangerous for babies to drink.
Although technicians claimed some progress in containing a potential nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 12 days after it was badly damaged by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, the success was overshadowed by reports of radioactive iodine at twice the safe limit in water at a treatment plant that services the capital’s 23 wards and Greater Tokyo.
Tokyo's Governor Shintara Ishihara said there was no immediate health threat and urged people to "remain calm."
But the news, especially that babies under 1 year old shouldn't have tap water, sent mothers scurrying to the store.
“All the bottled water in the supermarket was gone immediately,” said Azusa Imamura, in her 50s, after a quick shopping trip in her crowded Tokyo suburb. “Nobody is sure of anything.”
Many mothers said they were confused about what was now safe to feed their children.
“If you breastfeed a baby, maybe the water in your system will also get into the milk,” said one young mother who preferred to remain nameless. Iodine-131, or radioactive iodine, is rapidly absorbed by the thyroid gland and, especially in children, increases the risk of thyroid cancer.
Japanese officials said Wednesday that in addition to milk and water, 11 types of vegetables from the tsunami-hit area had shown unsafe radiation levels.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan further stoked fear by ordering the governor of Fukushima “not to distribute and/or consume” a wide range of leafy vegetables. Food business operators in a neighboring prefecture were also ordered “not to distribute any fresh raw milk and parsley.”
Meanwhile, the United States became the first country to block produce from Japan since the tsunami struck. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) halted the import of milk, vegetables and fruits, according to Reuters. Imports will be halted from four prefectures in Japan's northeast, which was hit hardest by the disaster.
The FDA said the banned foods will be detained at the entry and not sold to the public, AP reported. Other foods from Japan, such as seafood, will continue to be sold but will be screened for radiation.
Amid rising anxiety, government spokesman Yukio Edano said authorities had put out the radiation warnings merely as a precaution. He assured the nation, in a televised speech, that Japan adhered to “strict safety standards.”
Japanese authorities had the support of Dr. Robert Peter Gale, a former UCLA professor with widespread experience in studying nuclear disasters. People in the Fukushima area “need guidance regarding risks,” he said. One key point, he said, is that Iodine-131 has a “half life” of eight days, meaning that within 80 days all the radioactivity will have dissipated.
Meanwhile, at the plant, concerns of nuclear meltdown again ratcheted up when a cloud of black smoke burst forth from the troublesome No. 3 reactor Wednesday afternoon, once again forcing the evacuation of workers.
Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the nuclear safety agency, said he didn't know the cause of the smoke. “We did not see fire,” he said. “The smoke is now being subdued. We are not sure of the cause.”
An hour later, the smoke had cleared and engineers and technicians were able to resume work restoring power to the plant and trying to cool it down, Nishiyama said, adding that radiation levels had not increased as a result of the incident.
Engineers have managed to connect outside power lines to all six reactors, but extensive damage to the plant — much of which is still unknown — means workers have a way to go before they will be able to shut down all reactors.
Jun Saito, director-general of economic analysis for the cabinet, estimated recovery from the disaster would take at least three years. He said it was uncertain how much it would cost to repair damages estimated at more than $300 billion.
So far more than 9,000 people have been confirmed dead in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011.