Japan sees some stabilization in nuclear crisis

TOKYO, JAPAN – One of six tsunami-crippled nuclear reactors appeared to stabilize Saturday as Japan raced to restore power to the stricken power plant to cool it and prevent a catastrophic release of radiation.

Engineers reported some rare success after fire trucks sprayed water for several hours on reactor No.3, widely considered the most dangerous at the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex because of its use of highly toxic plutonium.

"The situation there is stabilizing somewhat," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference.

Japan also reported its first contamination of food since the powerful March 11 earthquake and tsunami that has left nearly 18,000 people dead or missing, turned entire towns into debris-strewn wastelands and triggered a nuclear emergency.

Japan ordered a halt to all food product sales from Fukushima prefecture, said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which warned that radioactive iodine found in food can pose a short-term risk to human health.

Radiation levels in milk from a Fukushima farm about 30 km (18 miles) from the plant, and spinach grown in Ibaraki, a neighboring prefecture, exceeded government limits, Edano said.

Faint radiation was also found in tap water in Maebashi, 100 km (62 miles) north of Tokyo, Kyodo News reported.

Edano told reporters before the IAEA warning that higher radiation levels posed no risk to human health, but the findings are sure to heighten scrutiny of Japanese food exports, especially in Asia, their biggest market.

Restaurants in Singapore are already considering importing sushi, sashimi and other Japanese ingredients from elsewhere.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, facing Japan's biggest disaster since World War Two, sounded out the opposition about forming a government of national unity to deal with the crisis. But the leader of the largest opposition party rejected the idea out of hand.

Despite signs of progress Saturday, the crisis looked far from tamed.

A 1.5 km (one mile) power cable was connected to the outside of the mangled plant in a desperate attempt to re-start water pumps that would cool overheating nuclear fuel rods and prevent a deadly radiation leak.

Four of the worst-hit reactors in the complex should have electricity by Sunday, Japan's nuclear safety agency said, a potentially crucial milestone in the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years.

Restoring the plant's cooling system might help to allay anxiety in Tokyo, about 240 km (150 miles) to south where tens of thousands of tourists, expatriates and residents have either left or stayed indoors, despite radiation readings well within the average and winds blowing from the plant off to sea.

Engineers fixed the power cable to the No. 2 reactor but have yet to turn on its coolers, and they plan to test power in reactors No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 Sunday, Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general at the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told a news conference.

"This is an absolutely necessary step," he said. "To return the situation to normal we need power to bring the temperature down with normal methods."

Restarting the coolers would be "a significant step forward in establishing stability," added Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at U.S.-based FocalPoint Consulting Group.

Working inside a 20-km (12-mile) evacuation zone at Fukushima, nearly 300 engineers restarted a second diesel generator for reactor No. 6, the nuclear safety agency added. They used the power to restart cooling pumps on No. 5.

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