Death toll in Japan exceeds 8,000, with 13,000 more missing

The combined toll of those dead and missing after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami surpassed 21,000 Sunday, and new food-contamination reports surfaced as workers continued to try to tame the radiation-spewing Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Government officials said that the nuclear emergency may soon be under control. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) reported incremental progress over the weekend in efforts that could restore electricity to the entire blacked-out, six-reactor complex.

Two reactors now have power from diesel generators, and two other reactors are hooked up to new electrical cables that could soon provide juice to the cooling systems. Meanwhile, fire trucks Sunday launched seawater onto a boiling pond that stores the spent nuclear fuel rods from one of the other reactors.

Officials sweated out a touch-and-go decision Sunday on whether to vent radioactive gases to the air to keep the primary containment vessel for reactor unit 3 from building up too much pressure.

A similar pressure buildup led to a March 15 explosion on a different reactor, triggering a dramatic spike in radiation near the plant. Officials decided not to vent any gas but said the move may yet be necessary.

“We consider that now we have come to a situation where we are very close to getting the situation under control,” Deputy Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama said.

Graham Andrew, a senior official at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), gave a more equivocal assessment Sunday. “There have been some positive developments in the last 24 hours, but overall the situation remains very serious,” he said.

General Electric, designer of the nuclear reactors used at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, pointed Sunday to a new report from the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade association of which GE is a member, defending the controversial Mark I containment vessels that house the reactors. The vessels “appeared to have held pressure to well above the design pressure,” the report said.

Japan’s nuclear emergency has raised concerns about U.S. nuclear power plants. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” said that although U.S. nuclear plants are decades old, they have had numerous safety upgrades in recent years. But he said all the plants will be reexamined in the wake of the Japan crisis, and he hedged on the future of the Indian Point reactor in southern New York state, within 50 miles of more than 20 million people.

“The evacuation plans of the Indian Point reactor will be looked at and studied in great detail,” Chu said. He added that “we’re going to have to look at whether this reactor should remain,” but said the government believes the reactor is safe.

“Where we site reactors going forward will be different than where we might have sited them going in the past,” Chu said.

With each day there are new recriminations and doubts about the Japanese government’s and Tepco’s response to the March 11 disaster. News reports have raised questions about whether Tepco hesitated to dump seawater on the overheating nuclear reactors because the use of seawater will corrode and ruin these valuable corporate assets. And the government acknowledged that it had been slow in distributing potassium iodide pills to people vulnerable to the invisible atomic clouds emerging from the nuclear plant.

The northeast coast of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, is the scene of historic devastation, with more than 300,000 people living in shelters, a million homes without water, more than 14,000 buildings destroyed and 100,000-plus damaged. Entire towns on the coast were obliterated by the wall of water that in some locations was taller than the two-story houses in its path.

The World Bank said Monday that the disasters caused up to $235 billion in damage.

Amid this grim reality came a note of joy. Rescuers reached an 80-year-old woman and her 16-year-old grandson trapped in a house in a village that had mostly been swept away by the tsunami. The dramatic helicopter airlift, broadcast live on national television, came after Sumi Abe had been pinned in her home by fallen debris for nine days in Ishinomaki City. She survived with the help her grandson Jin, who fetched her food from the refrigerator and eventually waved down rescue workers from the roof, according to NHK television.

The woman reportedly told her rescuers, “I am relieved,” the network said. Jin was found shivering under towels. The two were airlifted to a Red Cross hospital, with the boy suffering from hypothermia, the station reported.

Sunday brought new reports of radiation contamination in food — this time in canola and chrysanthemum greens — following the detection of small amounts of radioactive elements in milk and spinach a day earlier. Officials assured the public the trace elements posed no health risks at this point.

The crisis has galvanized Japan’s anti-nuclear groups, and an estimated 1,000 people rallied near Olympic Stadium in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park on Sunday, then marched into the heart of the Shibuya shopping district, chanting: “Stop all nuclear power!”

The protest was initially organized by labor union officials to oppose the Iraq war, but it gained momentum in the aftermath of the earthquake as a platform to vent anger about the government’s nuclear energy policies and a failure to provide food and gasoline to victims.

The crowd was mostly composed of middle-age protesters, many affiliated with labor unions, along with university students who came from as far as Hiroshima in the south and Miyagi prefecture in the north. It was a motley coalition of causes, but the main rallying cry was to get relief to stricken areas. The rally included speeches by anti-nuclear and antiwar activists. As the group marched, protesters blew whistles, beat drums and waved flags and signs that said “No Nukes” and “Unite Workers to Help Victims.” They shouted “Get Kan out!” — a reference to Prime Minister Naoto Kan — and chanted, “No food, no gas is reaching the shelters!”

As they marched down the street, past department stores and into a five-street intersection known as Shibuya Crossing, they were flanked by plainclothes and uniformed police officers. Crowds of mostly young bystanders grew thick on the sidewalks, taking pictures with their phones.

The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami was raised to 8,649, with 13,262 more still missing, according to the Japan’s National Police Agency. That is far higher than the 6,400 who died during a quake in Kobe in 1995.

Time and hope are dwindling in the hunt for survivors. In Miyagi prefecture, where the official death toll is 4,882, the police chief told his staff Sunday to prepare for up to 15,000 bodies. Already bodies have been taken to 19 makeshift morgues, including a high school gymnasium, a police spokesman said.

achenbachj@washpost.com

Achenbach reported from Washington. Staff writer Michael Alison Chandler and special correspondents Akiko Yamamoto, Kyoko Tanaka and Tetsuya Kato contributed to this report from Tokyo.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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