Nuclear authorities say workers have been evacuated from an area of Japan’s troubled nuclear plant after gray smoke was seen coming from one of its reactors.
Officials said Monday that no increase in radiation levels has been detected and they are still trying to determine the cause of the smoke.
The new threat at the Fukushima nuclear plant came as heavy rain pounded northeastern Japan’s earthquake-stricken regions, grounding relief helicopters and prompting increased fears about radiation.
The weather forced Prime Minister Naoto Kan to cancel a planned visit to a staging area for relief supplies just 20 kilometers from the Fukushima plant, where work crews continue to spray seawater to keep spent fuel rods from overheating.
Authorities said the rain was also preventing helicopter crews from flying food, water and other relief goods to remote locations where tens of thousands of people are housed in makeshift shelters with scant food and heat.
A spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said the smoke was detected in mid-afternoon and that workers were “temporarily” evacuated until the cause can be determined. He said the smoke was coming from the area of the Number 3 reactor, one of two reactors which are believed to have suffered damage to the containment chambers surrounding their nuclear cores.
Authorities said earlier that two of the six reactors at the Fukushima complex are now stabilized and that progress has been made in restoring power lines so that water can be pumped to the others. But the government says it may be days before power is restored to the Number 2 reactor, which also is thought to have suffered damage to its containment chamber. Serious problems also remain at the number 4 reactor.
The death toll from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami continues to climb as more bodies wash up on the coasts of Iwate and Miyagi prefectures. More than 8,600 people have now been confirmed dead and more than 13,200 are reported missing. Police in Miyagi say they believe about 15,000 people have died in that prefecture alone.
Growing concerns about the safety of the food supply were heightened by the rain, which carries airborne radiation to the ground. Officials said people should try to avoid getting wet and be sure to wipe themselves dry if they do.
The government has already halted shipments of spinach from one area and raw milk from another after tests showed they contained elevated levels of radiation. Late Sunday, officials said excessive levels had also been discovered on canola and chrysanthemum greens.
Small amounts of iodine and cesium have also been detected in Tokyo tap water, although officials said the levels are not high enough to be an immediate threat to human health.