In shadow of nuclear crisis, tsunami toll mounts

Tokyo Police officers in protective suits search for missing persons in Minamisoma, Japan March 28, 2011 photo. Officials near the damaged Fukushima nuclear are struggling to recover bodies from the tsunami because even small increases in radiation levels often force them to stop their work. AP Photo/Yomiuri Shimbun

FUKUSHIMA, Japan - In the shadow of Japan's struggle to stem radioactive leaks from its stricken nuclear complex, police in white moon suits pull bodies of tsunami victims from an evacuated zone in halting work interrupted by radiation alarms.

The crisis at the plant, which has compelled Japanese officials to increasingly turn to international help in stemming the leaks, has sometimes overshadowed the other disaster wrought by a March 11 tsunami: the decimation of hundreds of miles of northeastern coastline, the displacement of tens of thousands and the deaths of an estimated 19,000 people.

Complete coverage: Disaster in Japan

"We find bodies everywhere — in cars, in rivers, under debris and in streets," a police official from the hard-hit Fukushima prefecture said Thursday. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Efforts to recover the bodies from the 12-mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant have been slowed by a wasteland of debris, but also by fears of radiation. Police in that prefecture dressed in full radiation suits retrieved 19 corpses from the rubble 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 an 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 Sunday after radiation on it triggered the alarm.

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There also are concerns about the disposal of bodies, because Japanese tend to cremate their dead, and fires can spread radiation. The Health Ministry recommends that the bodies be cleaned and those with even small levels of radiation should be handled only by people wearing suits, gloves and masks.

Overall, including in regions further from the stricken plant, police have recovered more than 11,000 bodies, but estimate that at least 19,500 are dead.

Radiation concerns also have 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 are increasingly seeking outside help, including experts in eliminating contaminated water from French nuclear giant Areva. Experts and a robot from the U.S. have also arrived in Japan.

"The amount of water is enormous, and we need any wisdom available," nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said.

The U.S. 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.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who arrived Thursday in Tokyo to speak with the Japanese prime minister, urged the world to learn from Japan's crisis and suggested that the Group of 20 nations set international nuclear safety standards.

"It's completely abnormal that these international safety norms don't exist," said Sarkozy after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The IAEA has standards, but they are not compulsory.

Japan also has sought expertise from the U.S., which stations thousands of troops in the Asian country. On Thursday, Tokyo said it was setting up a panel of Japanese and American nuclear experts and American military personnel to address the Fukushima crisis.

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 band might want to leave, too.

At the edge of the no-man's land, a former training ground for elite athletes has been transformed into a base camp for the subcontractors, military troops, firefighters and power utility employees working around the clock to stabilize the plant.

"It isn't perfect, but it does provide a place for the workers to pull back and get some rest before they have to go back in," said Hirota Oyama, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the nuclear plant.

Workers go into the plant in shifts, and frequently stop short because of the high radiation levels on its grounds. They must wear full-body protective gear and gulp down canned goods or other foods that are not exposed to the contaminated air.

There were concerns Wednesday that the evacuation zone might need to be expanded after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that radiation levels in a village outside even the voluntary band registered at twice the threshold the agency recommends for evacuations.

But Japan said Thursday that the exposure — a measure of how dangerous radiation is to humans — was half the country's evacuation threshold.

"Under the estimate, we can roughly say there is no need for the residents of Iitate to immediately evacuate," nuclear official Nishiyama said.

Contamination from the plant has also been seeping into the sea, though so far poses no threat to human health. Those levels rose again Thursday in seawater some 360 yards from the shore to 4,385 times the legal limit.

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