Search for survivors hampered by radiation

The search for bodies and survivors of this month's huge earthquake and tsunami in Japan is being hampered by growing fears of radiation leaking from the stricken nuclear plant in Fukushima.

Hundreds of people are still missing in Fukushima prefecture, home to the six-reactor Daiichi plant, where workers are still battling to prevent nuclear disaster. Troops from Japan's Self-Defence Forces have been helping evacuate mainly elderly and ill people from the area since the government told residents within 20km of the plant to leave.

"I think people are still in the area," said Motoaki Kitano, a doctor who runs a small clinic in Aizu-Wakamatsu-shi, Fukushima prefecture, about 100km from the plant. With his wife Tokiko, he has taken in 17 refugees from the disaster-hit areas.

Japanese press reports say most able-bodied refugees have left, but that rescue teams are reluctant to enter the 20km zone without protective gear. SDF personnel quoted by Kyodo News said it was possible "many bodies" had been left behind.

Police say that 16,500 people are still missing. Almost 10,000 people have been confirmed dead, mostly in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.

The search for bodies and survivors goes on amid conflicting reports about the state of the Fukushima complex, and the level of radiation around it. Japan's Defence Ministry, which has been co-ordinating the use of helicopters and fire engines to cool the overheating plant, said yesterday that temperatures inside four of its six reactors had fallen to below 20C. Operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) says it has restored power to the plant.

But the Mainichi newspaper and other sources said that pressure and heat were still rising inside the No 1 reactor, which reportedly reached 394C yesterday. Spent fuel rods in reactor No 4 also continue to cause concern.

Some experts are disputing government claims that escaped radiation has been minimal. Austria's Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics said this week that the release of two types of radioactive particles in the first three to four days reached 20 to 50 per cent of the amounts from Chernobyl in 10 days.

The dangers involved in the battle to bring the reactor under control were highlighted yesterday when three workers were taken to hospital after stepping in highly radioactive water while trying to restart coolers in reactor No 3. Tepco said the water had probably seeped into their suits, sparking criticism that the men may not have been given watertight gear.

The state broadcaster said Tokyo lifted a warning yesterday on tap water after determining that levels of radioactive iodine had returned to acceptable limits for infants.