Fresh setback hits engineers at stricken Japanese nuclear plant

SURVIVOR: Sumi Abe, 80, reacts to firefighters after being rescued from her destroyed house in Ishinomaki, in Miyagi prefecture, Japan, along with her 16-year-old grandson yesterday.
SURVIVOR: Sumi Abe, 80, reacts to firefighters after being rescued from her destroyed house in Ishinomaki, in Miyagi prefecture, Japan, along with her 16-year-old grandson yesterday.
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ENGINEERS battling to control Japan’s stricken nuclear power plant faced a fresh setback with an unexpected rise in pressure in one of its reactors amid increased fears over the spread of radiation.

The team working at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have managed to restore power to two of reactors in the first breakthrough since the plant was catastrophically damaged when a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami struck on March 11.

But amid the concerns, Japan was cheered by the news that an 80-year-old woman and her teenage grandson have been plucked from the wreckage of their home nine days after the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Rescuers in Ishinomaki found 16-year-old Jin Abe shivering on the roof of his collapsed wooden home with his grandmother Sumi Abe still trapped inside. The two had been stuck there since the March 11 magnitude 9.0 quake struck off the coast of Japan. They had survived with food that was in their refrigerator.

At the stricken nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company said units five and six were now safe after days of pumping water into the reactors’ pool brought temperatures down.

However engineers reported that pressure had unexpectedly risen in a third unit at the reactor, raising the prospect of another release of radioactive steam to relieve the problem.

The ongoing crisis had led to rising uncertainty over the safety of food and water near to the nuclear site.

Japanese government officials have advised villagers in Fukushima not to drink tap water because of radioactive iodine.

Shipments of spinach from one area and raw milk from another near the plant were halted after tests found iodine exceeded safety limits. The contamination has also spread to spinach in three other prefectures and to more vegetables.

On Friday it was reported that Tokyo’s tapwater had been contaminated by tiny traces of iodine. Yesterday it emerged that it has also been found to contain minuscule traces of caesium.

A nuclear safety official admitted yesterday that the government only belatedly realised the need to give potassium iodide to those living within 12 miles of the nuclear complex. The pills help reduce the chances of thyroid cancer, one of the diseases that may develop from radiation exposure.

The official, Kazuma Yokota, said the explosion that happened while venting the plant’s unit three reactor last Sunday should have triggered the distribution of tablets. However the order only came three days later.

Mr Yokota said: “We should have made this decision and announced it sooner. It is true that we had not foreseen a disaster of these proportions.

“We had not practised or trained for something this bad. We must admit that we were not fully prepared.”

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 region where the tainted spinach was found – and overall expressed concern about food safety.

However 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 period of time. No contamination has been reported in Japan’s main food export, seafood.

The exodus of British nationals from Japan continued yesterday but the Foreign Office said there would be no more Government-chartered seats made available on flights out of the country today.

Seven Britons left Japan on a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong yesterday.

It was the fourth flight that has been made available with Government-chartered seats in the last few days.

Some 17,000 Britons are believed to have been in Japan when the catastrophe occurred but there are no reports of British casualties yet. The number of British citizens now remaining in the country is not known.

The tsunami resulting from the quake has so far killed more than 8,100 people.

The death toll is expected rise as 12,000 people are still reported missing. At least 450,000 people are now living in temporary shelters.