By SHINO YUASA and JAY ALABASTER, Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) - A suspected breach in the reactor core at one unit of a stricken Fukushima nuclear plant could mean more serious radioactive contamination,Japanese officials said Friday, revealing what may prove a major setback in the mission to bring the leaking plant under control.
The uncertain situation halted work at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, where dozens had been working feverishly to stop the overheated plant from leaking dangerous radiation, officials said. The plant has leaked some low levels of radiation, but a breach could mean a much larger release of contaminants.
Officials are also grappling with a humanitarian crisis, with much of the frigid northeast still a scene of despair and devastation as Japan struggles to feed and house hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors, clear away debris and bury the dead.
Police said the official death toll jumped past 10,000 on Friday. With the cleanup and recovery operations continuing and more than 17,400 listed as missing, the final number of dead was expected to surpass 18,000.
In the devastated coastal town of Onagawa, Shintaro Kamihara and his small troop from Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force searched a debris-strewn beach long enough to serve as an impromptu coffin.
The corpse they found lay off to the side of the road beneath a wet, yellow blanket. Just beyond, a station wagon perched precariously on the roof of a hollowed-out, two-story hotel.
In the early days, he said his troops delivered goods to coastal towns with no access, but now roads have been repaired. A large boat nearby had hot water so people could take baths onboard.
Tomohiko Abe, 45, a machinist at the local atomic plant, was in Onagawa to salvage what he could from his car, which was parked in a lot near the water when the waves came crashing onshore.
"We finally got electricity a day or two ago, but water is still a problem," he said.
He said he has not had a bath or shower since the quake two weeks ago.
"It's still like I'm in a dream," he said. "People say it's like a movie, but it's been worse than any movie I've ever seen."
In Fukushima, the confusion at the nuclear plant was yet another setback to the urgent task of gaining control of the facility 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.
Suspicions of a possible breach were raised when two workers waded into water 10,000 times more radioactive than is typical and suffered skin burns, the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency said.
However, though damage cannot be ruled out, the cause remained unclear, spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama told reporters.
"It is possible there may be damage somewhere in the reactor," he said, adding that a leak in the plumbing or the vents could also be to blame.
Elevated levels of radiation have already turned up in raw milk, seawater and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips. Tap water in several areas of Japan - including Tokyo - also tested with radiation levels considered unsafe for infants, who are particularly vulnerable to cancer-causing radioactive iodine, officials said.
The scare caused a run on bottled water in the capital, and prompted officials to distribute bottled water to families with babies.
Previous radioactive emissions have come from intentional efforts to vent small amounts of steam through valves to prevent the core from bursting. However, releases from a breach could allow uncontrolled quantities of radioactive contaminants to escape into the surrounding ground or air.
Government spokesman Yukio Edano said Thursday's accident showed "safety measures may not be adequate" and warned that may contribute to rising anxiety among people about how the disaster is being managed.
"We have to make sure that safety is secured for the people working in that area. We truly believe that is incumbent upon us," the chief Cabinet secretary told reporters Friday, adding that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., was ordered to ensure workers' safety.
Meanwhile, damage to factories was taking its toll on the world's third-largest economy and creating a ripple effect felt worldwide.
Nissan Motor Co. said it may move part of its engine production line to the United States because of damage to a plant.
The quake and tsunami are emerging as the world's most expensive natural disasters on record, wreaking up to $310 billion in damages, the government said.
"There is no doubt that we have immense economic and financial damage," Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said. "It will be our task how to recover from the damage."
At Sendai's port, brand new Toyota cars lay crushed in piles. At the airport, flooded by the tsunami on March 11, U.S. Marines used bulldozers and shovels to shift wrecked cars that lay scattered like discarded toys.
With fuel at a premium, the line of cars waiting for gasoline stretched down the street - and those patient enough to make it to the pump were restricted to 4,000-yen (about $40) worth of fuel.
Still, there were examples resilience, patience and fortitude across the region.
In Soma, a hard-hit town along the Fukushima prefecture coast, rubble covered the block where Hiroshi Suzuki's home once stood. He watched as soldiers dug into mounds of timber had been neighbors' homes in search of bodies. Just three bodies have been pulled out.
"I never expected to have to live through anything like this," he said, mournfully. Suzuki is one of Soma's lucky, but the tsunami washed away the shop where he sold fish and seaweed.
"My business is gone. I don't think I will ever be able to recover," said Suzuki, 59.
Still, he managed to find a bright side. "The one good thing is the way everyone is pulling together and helping each other. No one is stealing or looting," he said.
"It makes me feel proud to be Japanese."
Alabaster reported from Onagawa. Associated Press writers Tomoko A. Hosaka, Jean H. Lee and Jeff Donn in Tokyo, Eric Talmadge in Soma and Johnson Lai in Sendai contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)