Thousands of Japanese and US troops have launched an intensive air and sea operation to recover bodies of those killed in the huge earthquake and tsunami that ravaged north-east Japan three weeks ago.
The grim search came as the government revealed that radiation from a nuclear power plant crippled by the twin disasters had been found in groundwater, with contamination already reported in the air, ocean and food.
In the search for bodies, Japanese and US armed forces deployed 120 aircraft and 65 ships for a three-day search along the north-east coast, where houses, ships, cars and trains still lay scattered across the muddy wastelands.
A total of 24,000 military personnel were to join the massive sweep, media said.
“The focus will be along the coastline, river mouths and land areas still submerged in sea water,” a Japanese ground forces official told AFP.
Prime minister Naoto Kan was to address the nation and then on Saturday fly to the devastated port of Rikuzentakata and ‘J-village’, the base for hundreds of emergency crew who have battled at great risk to prevent a nuclear meltdown.
At the Fukushima atomic plant workers readied to spray resin on the rubble of blast-hit reactor buildings as part of their tense stop-and-go effort aimed at shutting the plant down.
The environmental impact is worsening, with high levels of iodine-131 found in groundwater 15 metres below the plant’s No. 1 reactor, and at more than 4,000 times the maximum safe level in the nearby Pacific Ocean.
The radiation – which has already halted national shipments and exports of vegetables, dairy produce and other foods from four prefectures – widened to beef, the health ministry said.
A sample of beef from Tenei in Fukushima prefecture, about 70 kilometres from the crippled nuclear plant, had shown 510 becquerels of radioactive caesium – exceeding the 500-becquerel limit, the ministry said.
The government has assured the public that no water or food contamination had yet reached levels that would have an immediate impact on public health.
Top government spokesman Yukio Edano said: “I have been informed that a certain amount of radioactive substances has leaked into the groundwater. We will keep monitoring the impact on sea water and the surrounding environment.”
The Japanese government reportedly plans to take control of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.
An official told Japanese media the government will take a 50 per cent stake in the company, giving it a certain level of management involvement.
But the official says the government has no intention of nationalising TEPCO.
The utility company could face compensation claims of more than $130 billion if the nuclear crisis drags on and TEPCO has no chance of covering those costs.
Japan has also resisted a nudge from the UN nuclear watchdog this week to widen the 20-kilometre evacuation zone around the nuclear plant and clear people out of the village of Iitate, 40 km north-west of the facility.
Of the village’s 6,000 residents, 3,800 were still there on Thursday, local official Takashi Kobayashi said.
In parts of the village, people “are walking outside as usual, although everyone is wearing a mask”, he said.
“We are aware that a high level of radiation has been detected, but residents feel it’s best to stay home. They can’t stay at relatives’ places for a long time and they need to take care of their cattle and other livestock.”
But Japan’s prime minister said the radiation leaking from the Fukushima plant presents no public health threat as long as people follow the government’s advice.
“Japan decides on the area (of evacuation around the plant) based on experts’ advice and proposals,” Mr Kan said.
“In Japan, we ask people to follow the rules because if they do, there will be no damage to their health.”
On the tsunami-hit coastline within the 20 km exclusion zone, up to 1,000 bodies were still lying amid the tsunami’s muddy debris, out of reach of rescue workers who cannot enter because of the high radiation, Kyodo News reported.
The bodies had been “exposed to high levels of radiation after death”, one official was quoted as saying, and there was concern that they were now too contaminated to be safely recovered, or even to be cremated.
A total of 11,532 people were confirmed dead by Japan’s National Police Agency as of Thursday, while 16,441 were missing.