Japanese authorities claimed progress, or at least the next best thing — no sign of things getting worse.
“We have been able to prevent the situation from worsening,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Saturday. “I believe we are reaching a big turning point.”
Edano’s words, however, came amid the relentlessly grim statistics of the nation’s tragedy: 7,348 confirmed dead, 2,603 injured, 10,947 reportedly missing, 362,580 evacuated and living in shelters, according to government agencies.
The mood in Japan remained one of nervous anticipation of what new threat might arise. A 6.1-magnitude aftershock struck in Ibaraki prefecture, rattling buildings in Tokyo.
The weekend also brought a new, if inevitable, report of radiation contamination in the nation’s food supply. It was found in milk 20 miles from the nuclear plant and even farther away, about 60 miles, in spinach collected on half a dozen farms, according to the Associated Press. Traces of radioactive iodine also were discovered in tap water in Tokyo and other cities.
Officials urged calm, saying the detected amounts of radiation are not harmful. Edano said that further tests would be conducted and that the government would ban the sale of any contaminated food products. “Human beings are exposed to a certain level of radiation in daily life. Please react calmly,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s office wrote on its Twitter account after the Saturday news conference.
But milk is a particularly sensitive issue when radiation fears arise. After the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1986, cows fed on contaminated grass and produced milk that was blamed for 6,000 thyroid cancer cases, mostly among people who were children at the time of the accident.
The escalating crisis prompted Kan, of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, to propose the creation of a coalition government with the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest opposition group. But on Saturday, LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki rejected Kan’s offer that he become deputy prime minister, citing policy differences. Kan had reportedly hoped the move would make it easier to pass legislation aimed at helping the disaster response.
At the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a bolstered force of technicians and engineers are scrambling to keep water levels from dropping in reactors and storage ponds. There are six reactors on site, and all six have problems.
Units 1, 2 and 3 were in operation when the earthquake hit and apparently have sustained partial meltdowns of the cores that hold the nuclear fuel rods. The buildings housing reactors 1, 3 and 4 have been severely damaged in explosions. The water level is dangerously low in the spent-fuel pools for units 3 and 4, and the temperature is too high in the pools in units 5 and 6.