March 24, 2011 in Nation/World

Tokyo scrambles for bottled water

Households with children to get ration
Julie Makinen Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

A man walks past the empty shelves of bottled water at a convenience store in Tokyo on Wednesday.
(Full-size photo)

TOKYO – Parents in Tokyo and five surrounding cities scrambled for bottled water today after the government warned that infants should not be allowed to consume tap water because elevated levels of radioactive iodine from a crippled nuclear plant were detected at a water treatment plant.

Water tests in Tokyo found levels of radioactive iodine 131 about double the level deemed safe for infants under the age of 1. The levels were below the unsafe benchmark for adults. In parts of Fukushima prefecture, where the nuclear plant is located, radiation levels exceeded both thresholds.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said the city’s water was safe for “non-potable” use and urged residents to remain calm. But some convenience stores were sold out of bottled water today and officials planned to distribute bottled water to 80,000 households with young children. Calls soon flooded a hotline with questions about whether it was safe to breast-feed babies or take baths.

The water woes came a day after Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan urged consumers not to eat a dozen types of contaminated vegetables from the region surrounding the nuclear facility 150 miles northeast of the capital and expanded a shipment ban.

The national government said damage from the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident could reach nearly $310 billion. The disaster could shrink Japan’s gross domestic product by 0.5 percent in fiscal year 2011, which begins April 1, the government said.

Workers continued their struggle to gain control over the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, where white vapor that appeared to be steam rose today from three of the reactor buildings. Dark smoke at the No. 3 reactor that had forced officials to evacuate the facility a day earlier dissipated this morning, and emergency workers were preparing to begin injecting as much as 500 tons of sea water into its depleted-fuel pool, according to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Temperatures in depleted-fuel pools at the reactors had fallen significantly, the agency reported today.

As relief officials and evacuees continued to battle subfreezing temperatures on the 13th day after the quake, the National Police agency said today that the death toll had increased to 9,523 and the number of missing to 16,067.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos and a contingent of U.S. military officials toured towns Wednesday along Japan’s battered northern coast. In Ishinomaki, he offered words of encouragement and further pledges of American support to a group of survivors who have taken shelter in an elementary school gymnasium.

“Nature can damage property and kill human life but it cannot destroy the human spirit,” Roos told displaced residents at the Watanoha elementary school, which served as a temporary shelter. “Today, I have witnessed the very best of humanity.”

In Yamada city in Iwate prefecture, about 100 miles north of Sendai, University of California-Los Angeles pediatric critical care doctor Kozue Shimabukuro said mobility was improving after days in which residents were only able to get around by foot, she said, thanks in part to Japanese Self-Defense Force troops clearing massive amounts of debris. A gas shortage also has eased.

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