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Japan death toll tops 10,000

The death toll from Japan's worst post-war disaster topped 10,000 today as the operator of a radiation-belching nuclear plant warned that work to stabilise it may take another month.

world Updated: Mar 28, 2011 18:41 IST

The death toll from Japan's worst post-war disaster topped 10,000 on Friday as the operator of a radiation-belching nuclear plant warned that work to stabilise it may take another month.

Two weeks after a giant 9.0-magnitude quake struck and sent a massive tsunami crashing into the Pacific coast, wiping entire towns off the map, Japan held out little hope of finding alive another 17,500 listed as missing.

The focus of Japan's fears remained the Fukushima nuclear plant northeast of Tokyo, which was still emitting radioactive vapour that has made the Japanese capital's drinking water unsafe for infants and sparked a global food scare.

"This terrifies me from the depth of my heart," Sunao Tsuboi, a survivor of the US nuclear bomb attack on Hiroshima in 1945 who is aged in his mid-80s, said.

"Radiation damages genes and DNA. This is something that no doctor can fix. There is no proper remedy for radiation exposure."

Two Japanese travellers were briefly sent to hospital in China with radiation levels well above normal levels after they arrived in the eastern city of Suzhou on Wednesday on a flight from Tokyo, China's safety watchdog said.

A doctor at a hospital in the nearby city of Suzhou told AFP the pair were checked, "decontaminated" and released, and the safety watchdog said they did not pose any threat to other travellers.

The European Union has joined the United States, Russia and several other countries in restricting food imports from Japan, which itself has ordered a stop to vegetable and dairy shipments from the region around the atomic plant.

Higher radioactivity has also been detected in the ocean near the Fukushima plant on Japan's Pacific coast, raising public fears about the safety of fish and seaweed, which are traditional staples in the island nation's diet.

At Tokyo's usually frantic Tsukiji fish market, the world's biggest, demand has plummeted -- partially because half-empty hotels in a nervous Tokyo have reduced orders as foreigners stay away and conferences are cancelled.

One seafood vendor, who asked not to be named, said that while he saw no immediate health threat, he expressed fears that "in one or two years, we could see a problem with certain varieties of fish".

Along the tsunami-ravaged coast of northern Honshu island, meanwhile, some 250,000 homeless in almost 2,000 shelters kept braving privations and a winter chill, with a degree of discipline and dignity that has impressed the world.

Huddled in converted school gymnasiums and makeshift camps around oil-drum fires, almost all are grieving for missing friends and relatives.

The elderly, a large demographic in fast-greying Japan, were especially hard hit. Two thirds of victims were aged over 60, according to an initial survey of 2,800 identified victims in five prefectures by the Yomiuri Shimbun.

At the Fukushima plant, workers kept spraying seawater onto overheating reactors and fuel rod pools as a stop-gap measure to prevent a larger meltdown, while trying to rebuild the original cooling systems.

The tremendous risk faced by the emergency crew was highlighted when two workers, employees of a subcontractor for the operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), were hospitalised Thursday with radiation burns.

The workers were placing cables in the basement of the number three reactor's turbine building when they stepped into a pool of water containing iodine, caesium and cobalt 10,000 times the normal level, TEPCO said.

The men, aged in their 20s and 30s, were wearing radiation suits but had on ill-fitting shoes had ignored a warning alarm from their dosimeters, "assuming a problem with the device", a TEPCO official said.

A total of 17 workers have been exposed to more than 100 millisieverts, the level at which the risk of developing cancer rises, the company says.

TEPCO admitted on Friday it may take at least another month to achieve a cold shutdown of all reactors -- when temperatures inside fall below boiling point and its cooling systems are back at atmospheric pressure.

"We are still in the process of assessing the damage at the plant, so that we can't put a deadline on when the cooling operations will work again. It may take more than a month, who knows," a TEPCO spokesman said.

The workers' injuries were a setback after some successes as engineers strive to restore power to the ageing facility's all-important cooling systems.