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Monday, March 21, 2011

WHO warns of "serious" food radiation in disaster-hit Japan

By Junko Fujita and Kazunori Takada
TOKYO | Mon Mar 21, 2011 5:00am EDT

TOKYO (Reuters) - The World Health Organization said on Monday that radiation in food after an earthquake damaged a Japanese nuclear plant was a "serious situation", eclipsing clear signs of progress in a battle to avert a catastrophic meltdown in the reactors.

Engineers managed to rig power cables to all six reactors at the Fukushima complex, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, and started a water pump at one of them to reverse the overheating that has triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.

Some workers were later evacuated from one of the most badly damaged reactors when gray smoke rose from the site. There was no immediate explanation for the smoke, but authorities had said earlier that pressure was building up at the No. 3 reactor.

The amount of smoke later receded.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami left more than 21,000 people dead or missing and will cost an already beleaguered economy some $250 billion.

Overshadowing news from the facility, however, was mounting concern that radioactive particles already released into the atmosphere have contaminated food and water supplies.

"Quite clearly it's a serious situation," Peter Cordingley, Manila-based spokesman for the World Health Organisation's (WHO) regional office for the Western Pacific, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"It's a lot more serious than anybody thought in the early days when we thought that this kind of problem can be limited to 20 to 30 kilometers ... It's safe to suppose that some contaminated produce got out of the contamination zone."

Japan's health ministry has urged some residents near the plant to stop drinking tap water after high levels of radioactive iodine were detected.

Cases of contaminated vegetables and milk have already stoked anxiety despite assurances from officials that the levels are not dangerous. The government has prohibited the sale of raw milk from Fukushima prefecture and spinach from a nearby area.

Cordingley said there was no evidence of contaminated food from Fukushima reaching other countries.

Japan is a net importer of food, but has substantial exports -- mainly fruit, vegetables, dairy products and seafood -- with its biggest markets in Hong Kong, China and the United States.

China would monitor food imported from Japan, the Xinhua news agency said, citing the country's quality control watchdog. South Korea said it would expand inspections for radioactivity to processed and dried agricultural Japanese food, from just fresh produce.


The World Bank, citing private estimates of between $122 billion and $235 billion for the cost, said the disaster would depress Japanese economic growth briefly before reconstruction kicks off and gives the economy a boost.