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Japanese police officials say the death toll will exceed 18,000

March 20, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Japanese police officials have revised their casualty numbers from the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami, saying the death toll will exceed 18,000.

Meanwhile, two units at Japan's crippled nuclear plant safely cooled down Sunday, but radiation was found in more foods, further shaking an already uneasy public.

Reactor Units 5 and 6 at the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant were brought under control after crews spent days pumping water into their fuel storage pools, cooling temperatures to acceptable levels. It was also reported that progress has been made in reconnecting those units and two others to the electrical grid.

However, an unexpected rise in pressure in Unit 3 is forcing operators to consider relieving that pressure by releasing radioactive steam. The same dangerous tactic produced explosions in the early days of the crisis. The plan was suspended later Sunday after the plant's operator said the reactor had stabilized. The option is still possible if pressure rises again.

Meantime, health officials in Japan have detected radiation tainted vegetables in more places. The discovery suggests contamination is reaching further into the food chain. Saturday, Japan officials said radioactive iodine was found in drinking water as far away as Tokyo and five other prefectures.

Officials also said radioactive iodine was found in drinking water in Fukushima prefecture, slightly exceeding government safety limits on Thursday. On Friday, levels were about half that benchmark, and by Saturday they had fallen further. However, the Japanese government on Sunday advised villages in Fukushima prefecture not to drink the tap water because of radioactive iodine.

High levels of radiation were also found in some batches of milk and spinach in farms near the nuclear plant. While the radiation levels exceed the limits allowed by the government, authorities insisted the products posed no immediate health risk.

In a rare rescue after so many days, a teenage boy's cries for help led police to rescue him and an 80-year-old woman at a wrecked house. The rescue happened nine days after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami savaged northeast Japan on March 11.

A Japanese nuclear safety official admitted the government was caught off-guard by the quake and tsunami and only belatedly realized the need to give potassium iodide pills to those living within 12 miles of the Fukushima plant. The pills help reduce the chances of thyroid cancer, one of the diseases that may develop from radiation exposure.

The official said a March 14 explosion at the plant's Unit 3 reactor should have triggered the distribution but the order did not come until two days later.

The death toll from the disasters has risen to 8,450 with more than 12,931 people still officially missing. In cities that do have electricity, rolling blackouts are expected to last for months.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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