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Reactor progress, miraculous rescue fuel Japan's hope, but food worries persist

Nuclear reactors are connected to the grid, meaning cooling systems could soon kick in. Also, a woman and her grandson are rescued after being trapped for nine days. But radiation found in beans quells the joy.

March 20, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Don Lee and Shari Roan | Los Angeles Times
  • Emergency workers transport 16-year-old Jin Abe to a hospital after he and his grandmother were rescued from quake rubble in Ishinomaki, Japan.
Emergency workers transport 16-year-old Jin Abe to a hospital after he… (Reuters )

Reporting from Japan and Los Angeles — — On a day police miraculously rescued an elderly woman and her teenage grandson trapped for nine days under rubble, workers at a crippled Japanese nuclear plant said they succeeded in connecting two reactors to the power grid Sunday, raising the possibility it could restore vital cooling systems to the overheated facilities.

But those glimmers of progress continued to compete against emerging fears about radiation contamination in Japan's food supplies.

A day after officials said they discovered higher-than-normal radioactivity in batches of milk and spinach -- as well as traces of radioactive iodine in tap water in Tokyo and elsewhere -- the Associated Press reported Sunday that Japanese fava beans imported to Taiwan were found to have small amounts of radiation, according to an official of Taiwan's Atomic Energy Council.

Photos: Unrelenting crisis grips Japan

Although Japan's Health Ministry said the contamination levels were not immediately harmful to humans, the discovery stirred new angst in a public already weary from earthquake aftershocks, blackouts and the threat of a full-fledged nuclear meltdown.

Early Sunday, consumers at some central Tokyo markets were lining up to buy milk, which already had been in short supply after milk-carton factories were knocked out by the quake and tsunami.

"The government keeps urging people to stay calm, but there's a sense of growing anxiety," said Hiroaki Nakajima, an employee at the Kimuraya supermarket.

Even before news of the tainted foods, he said, people were hoarding things that they wouldn't normally buy, like instant noodles, water and rice. Now, he said, customers ask where the milk and spinach come from.

A series of disasters have been battering Japan since a record-setting earthquake struck March 11 and a tsunami slammed into the northeastern coast. At least 8,199 people were killed, and 12,722 are unaccounted for, according to police.

Astonishingly, two of the missing were found alive Sunday by rescue workers in Ishinomaki city in Miyagi prefecture.

Sumi Abe, 80, and her 16-year-old grandson, Jin Abe, were in the kitchen when the quake and tsunami hit and demolished their house. They were trapped in the kitchen but managed to stay alive by wrapping themselves in towels and eating yogurt and drinking water and milk kept in the refrigerator. Jin Abe dug his way out of the rubble onto the roof, where he flagged down rescuers. The two were later airlifted to a nearby hospital.

Public broadcaster NHK showed a curly, gray-haired Sumi Abe wearing glasses wrapped in a blanket and surrounded by rescuers. She said she was unhurt and was able to say her name.

The grandmother had been unable to free herself after her legs were wedged under the refrigerator. Her grandson had hypothermia and told doctors that he had almost no feeling in his left leg.

There were also signs of progress at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant about 150 miles north of Tokyo after authorities said they connected reactors No. 1 and No. 2 to the power grid, crucial to reactivating their cooling systems.

"The electricity is now flowing and workers are testing the equipment," said Yoshinori Mori, a spokesman for the plant's operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Even with power, engineers face the possibility that the reactors' cooling systems were damaged by the quake and tsunami. Workers made progress on pulling a high-voltage line near the remaining four reactors, but it could be several days before they receive electricity.

"I don't think it is a sure thing at all. All the reactors were exposed to shock, so who knows if the piping is still intact?" said Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

In a press conference, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, the government's top spokesman, said it was too soon to tell if workers were stabilizing the atomic emergency.

"Our recent efforts seem, to some extent, to have helped halt a deterioration of the situation," said Edano, who suggested the plant be decommissioned. "But the situation remains volatile. We're not taking the optimistic view that things will steadily improve."

Lyman and other experts nonetheless took the restoration of power as an optimistic sign. It "is absolutely a turning point" in the battle to cool the reactors, USC nuclear physicist Najmedin Meshkati said.

However, experts were not surprised that inspectors found contaminated food. After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in the Soviet Union, a major cause of the thyroid disease suffered by children came from consumption of tainted foods, said Dr. Glenn D. Braunstein, chairman of the department of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Japanese health officials have dismissed such fears, saying that the amount of radiation detected away from the Fukushima plant is minor. Even so, traces of radiation in the food supply are a matter of concern.

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