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Dublin: 18°C Monday 26 July 2021

Japanese dash to recover decomposing bodies near Fukushima

As levels of radiation from nuclear plant stabilise, nearly 1,000 searchers begin trawl through 20km exclusion zone.

Police officers in protective suits search for missing people in Fukushima prefecture
Police officers in protective suits search for missing people in Fukushima prefecture
Image: PA Images

JAPANESE police are racing today to find thousands of missing bodies before they decompose along a stretch of tsunami-pummeled coast that has been largely off-limits because of a radiation-leaking nuclear plant.

Nearly a month after a 9.0-earthquake generated the tsunami along Japan’s northeastern coast, more than 14,700 people are still missing. Many of those may have been washed out to sea and will never be found.

In the days just after the March 11 disaster, searchers gingerly picked through mountains of tangled debris, hoping to find survivors. Heavier machinery has since been called in, but unpredictable tides of radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex have slowed progress and often forced authorities to abandon the search, especially within a 12-mile (20km) evacuation zone around the plant.

Officials now say there’s not much time left to find and identify the dead, and are ramping up those efforts. Ryoichi Tsunoda, a police spokesman in Fukushima prefecture, where the plant is located, said:

We have to find bodies now as they are decomposing. This is a race against time and against the threat of nuclear radiation.

Up to 25,000 people are believed to have been killed, of which 12,500 have been confirmed.There is expected to be some overlap in the dead and missing tolls because not all of the bodies have been identified.

Recent progress at the plant — which the tsunami flooded — appears to have slowed the release of radiation. Early yesterday, technicians there plugged a crack that had been gushing contaminated water into the Pacific. Radiation levels in waters off the coast fell dramatically later in the day, though contaminated water continues to pool throughout the complex, often thwarting work there.

After notching that rare victory, technicians began pumping nitrogen into the chamber of reactor in order to reduce the risk of a hydrogen explosion.

Three hydrogen blasts rocked the complex in the days immediately following the tsunami, which knocked out vital cooling systems. An internal report from March 26 by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned such explosions could occur and recommended adding nitrogen. The gas will be injected into all three of the troubled reactors over the next six days

Radiation has stabilised somewhat in recent days, Tsunoda said, and a small team resumed the search in Fukushima prefecture on Sunday. But the operation is dramatically increasing today, when 330 police and 650 soldiers fan out, wearing white protective gear from head to toe.

Teams patrolled deserted streets on the fringes of Minami Soma, a city just on the edge of the no-go zone that was completely flattened in the crush of water. One body was pulled out of the rubble this morning.

One officer said:

We just got started here this morning, so we expect there will be many more.

More than 1,000 people are missing in the city alone.

“I believe the search will continue until they find as many of the missing as they can, but we fear many of the missing were washed out to sea or are buried under rubble,” said Takamitsu Hoshi, a city official. “We haven’t been able to do much searching at all because of the radiation concerns. It was simply too dangerous.”


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