Japan death toll likely to top 18,000
Progress reported in controlling crisis at stricken nuclear plant as authorities battle fallout of quake and tsunami.
Last Modified: 21 Mar 2011 05:16
Japan's prime minister has described the March 11 quake and tsunami as the worst crisis since World War II [AFP]

Police officials say that the death toll from Japan's massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami is likely to exceed 18,000.

Hitoshi Sugawara, a police spokesman, said on Monday that Miyagi, one of the of the hardest-hit prefectures, might account for 15,000 deaths alone, .

"It is very distressing as we recover more bodies day by days," Sugawara said.

The National Police Agency said the overall number of bodies collected so far stood at 8,649 and some 13,262 people have been listed as missing.

The financial cost of the disaster was estimated to be some $235bn, the World Bank said in report on Monday, adding that Japan may need five years to rebuild.

Meanwhile, Japanese officials reported progress in their battle to gain control over a stricken nuclear complex that began leaking radiation after the twin disasters. The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was far from over though, with a dangerous new surge in pressure reported in one of the plant's six reactors.

Pressure was rising in the No. 3 reactor and workers there are considering whether to release pressure by "venting", Japan's nuclear safety agency said.

Under control

Engineers restored electricity to three reactors at the crippled plant and hope to test water pumps at the quake-damaged facility soon.

Working in suits sealed by duct tape, engineers have connected power cables to the No. 2, 5 and 6 reactors and plan to start testing systems soon, officials say.

The reactors had been leaking radiation after its cooling functions were damaged.

The operator of the overheated nuclear plant also said that two of the six reactor units were safely cooled down.

"We consider that now we have come to a situation where we are very close to getting the situation under control," Tetsuro Fukuyama, Japan's deputy cabinet secretary, said.

The safety of food and water has been of particular concern following the nuclear crisis. The government halted shipments of spinach from one area and raw milk from another near the nuclear plant after tests found iodine exceeded safety limits.

Tokyo's tap water, where iodine turned up Friday, now has cesium. Rain and dust are also tainted.

Early Monday, the health ministry advised Iitate, a village of 6,000 people about 30km northwest of the Fukushima plant, not to drink tap water due to elevated levels of iodine.

Takayuki Matsuda, a ministry spokesman, said iodine three times the normal level was detected there - about one twenty-sixth of the level of a chest X-ray in one litre of water.

In all cases, the government said the radiation levels were too small to pose an immediate health risk.

Growing concerns

The buildup in pressure inside the vessel holding the No. 3 reactor presented some danger, forcing officials to consider venting. The tactic produced explosions of radioactive gas during the early days of the crisis.

"Even if certain things go smoothly, there would be twists and turns," Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, said.

"At the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough."

Growing concerns about radiation add to the overwhelming chain of disasters Japan has struggled with since the 9.0-magnitude quake.

The resulting tsunami ravaged the northeastern coast, washing away towns and everything on its path. The disasters have displaced another 452,000, who are living in shelters.

Fuel, food and water remain scarce. The government in recent days acknowledged being caught ill-prepared by the disaster that the prime minister has called the worst crisis since World War II.

Amid the anxiety, there were moments of joy on Sunday. An 80-year-old woman and her teenage grandson were rescued from their flattened two-storey house after nine days, when the teen pulled himself to the roof and shouted to police for help.

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