Japanese police launch search for tsunami victims

Tokyo/Fukushima: As workers at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant continued to remove highly toxic water from reactors, hundreds of Japanese police personnel in protective gear on Thursday launched a massive search for tsunami victims in a 10-km zone around the radiation-leaking complex for the first time.

A strong earthquake with a magnitude of 6.1 jolted northeastern Japan, more than a month after a magnitude-9 quake and tsunami left nearly 30,000 people dead or unaccounted for.

The undersea quake struck at 5.57 am local time at a depth of just 11.2 km, around 190 km east of Morioka on Honshu island, according to the US Geological Survey.

However, the workers at the Fukushima plant continued the difficult task of removing highly radioactive water from the basements of Nos.1 to 3 reactor turbine buildings.

The level of polluted water in the plant`s underground trench was found to be edging up again this morning after some 660 tonnes were pumped out, Kyodo news agency reported.

The removal of some 60,000 tonnes of contaminated water is vital to speed up the work to restore key cooling functions of the reactors lost in the March 11 twin disaster.

According to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the water level at the vertical part of a trench had increased by about 3.5 cm this morning from the level recorded yesterday. The level of the water is, however, 2.5 cm lower than just before the water-transferring mission started.

TEPCO is preparing to transfer more highly radioactive water into a facility for nuclear waste disposal in the plant, which can accommodate 30,000 tonnes of liquid.

Hundreds of police personnel in protective white suit, for the first time searched rubble in areas near the plant for victims of last month`s tsunami.

Police launched the hunt for around 1,000 bodies believed to have been buried in the debris in areas close to the plant, amid falling radiation levels.

TEPCO also started looking into how to check the quake resistance of already heavily-damaged reactor buildings at the site in line with an order issued yesterday by the nuclear regulatory agency, in light of strong aftershocks from the March 11 quake.

To enhance preparation for dealing with tsunami waves triggered by aftershocks and other emergency situations, emergency diesel power or vehicle-mounted power sources are to be placed at higher ground, while backup units for water injection to the troubled Nos. 1 to 3 reactors are expected to be installed, according to the nuclear agency.

On April 7, the No.1 reactor of the Onagawa nuclear power plant in Miyagi Prefecture sustained a jolt greater than what it was designed to withstand during a strong aftershock, nuclear safety officials were quoted as saying by Kyodo.

Both the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and the Onagawa facility were hit by the March 11 quake and tsunami, but the latter has been largely under control with its key cooling functions being active.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the central government will study ways to improve communication with local authorities and residents near the crippled Fukushima plant.

"We are looking into how we can properly convey the information (to evacuees)," Edano said. "As communication (between the central and local governments) has not been sufficient, we need to take this seriously."

His statement followed controversial remarks by Kenichi Matsumoto, a special adviser to the Cabinet, who quoted Prime Minister Naoto Kan as saying during a meeting that people evacuated from homes near the plant would be unable to return to their hometowns "for 10 or 20 years."

Matsumoto later retracted his remark, while Kan himself said "I did not say that."

Kan`s purported remarks also drew criticism from opposition lawmakers, with Tadamori Oshima, vice president of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, saying the Premier was "unqualified as a leader" if he had indeed made such a remark.

Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of New Komeito, the country`s second-largest opposition party, said remarks should only be made after considering their impact on evacuees and local governments.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry said radioactivity above the legal limit was detected in fish caught off Fukushima prefecture and 11 types of vegetables grown in the region.

The ministry said it found 12,500 becquerels per kg, or 25 times the limit, of radioactive cesium in small fish called sand lances caught off Iwaki City, south of the Fukushima plant yesterday. It also discovered 12,000 becquerels, or 6 times the limit, of radioactive iodine in the fish, national broadcaster NHK reported.

The government yesterday banned the shipment of some shiitake mushrooms grown outdoors in eastern Fukushima after detecting radioactivity above the legal limit.