WRAPUP 2-Engineers toil to pump out Japan plant; radiation spikes

* Removing radioactive water a priority

* Iodine 131 levels in seawater near plant spikes 1,250
times

* More than 10,480 dead, 16,600 missing after quake, tsunami

* Fishing ports in northeast obliterated after tsunami

(Adds detail)

By Yoko Kubota

TOKYO, March 27 (Reuters) – Japanese engineers struggled on
Sunday to pump radioactive water from a crippled nuclear power
station after radiation levels soared in seawater near the plant
more than two weeks after it was battered by a huge earthquake
and a tsunami.

Tests on Friday showed iodine 131 levels in seawater 30 km
(19 miles) from the coastal nuclear complex had spiked 1,250
times higher than normal but it was not considered a threat to
marine life or food safety, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety
Agency said.

“Ocean currents will disperse radiation particles and so it
will be very diluted by the time it gets consumed by fish and
seaweed,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a senior agency official.

Despite that reassurance, the disclosure is likely to
heighten international concern over Japanese seafood exports.
Several countries have already banned milk and produce from
areas around the Fukushima Daiichi plant, while others have been
monitoring Japanese seafood.

Prolonged efforts to prevent a catastrophic meltdown at the
40-year-old plant have also intensified concern around
the world about nuclear power. U.N. Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon said it was time to reassess the international atomic
safety regime.

The crisis at the plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo,
has overshadowed a big relief and recovery effort from the
magnitude 9.0 quake and the huge tsunami it triggered on March
11 that left more than 27,100 people dead or missing in
northeast Japan.

Engineers trying to stabilise the plant have to pump out
radioactive water after it was found in buildings housing three
of the six reactors.

On Thursday, three workers were taken to hospital from
reactor No. 3 after stepping in water with radiation levels
10,000 times higher than usually found in a reactor. That raised
fear the core’s container could be damaged.

An official from plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co
(TEPCO) told a Sunday news conference experts still had
to determine where to put some of the contaminated water while
engineers were still trying to fully restore the plant’s power.

TEPCO said it was using fresh water instead of seawater to
cool down at least some of the reactors after concern arose that
salt deposits might hamper the cooling process.

Two of the plant’s reactors are now seen as safe but the
other four are volatile, occasionally emitting steam and smoke.
However, the nuclear safety agency said on Saturday that
temperature and pressure in all reactors had stabilised.

The government has said the situation was nowhere
near to being resolved, although it was not deteriorating.

“We are preventing the situation from worsening — we’ve
restored power and pumped in fresh water — and making basic
steps towards improvement but there is still no room for
complacency,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news
conference on Saturday.

More than 700 engineers have been toiling in shifts but
there’s no end in sight.

Aftershocks that have jolted the region since March 11 have
been tailing off. One on Sunday of magnitude 4.2 hit near the
stricken plant but there were no reports of further damage.

FISHING INDUSTRY OBLITERATED

At Three Mile Island, the worst nuclear power accident in
the United States, workers took just four days to stabilise the
reactor, which suffered a partial meltdown. No one was injured
and there was no radiation release above the legal limit.

At Chernobyl in Ukraine, the worst nuclear accident in the
world, it took weeks to “stabilise” what remained of the plant
and months to clean up radioactive materials and cover the site
with a concrete and steel sarcophagus.

So far, no significant levels of radiation have been
detected beyond the vicinity of the plant in Fukushima.

The U.S. Department of Energy said on its website (http://blog.energy.gov/content/situation-japan/)
no significant quantities of radiological material had been
deposited in the area around the plant since March 19, according
to tests on Friday.

In Tokyo, a metropolis of 13 million people, a Reuters
reading on Saturday morning showed ambient radiation of 0.22
microsieverts per hour, about six times normal for the city.
That was well within the global average of naturally occurring
background radiation of 0.17-0.39 microsieverts per hour, a
range given by the World Nuclear Association.

The government has prodded tens of thousands of people
living in a 20 km-30 km (12-18 mile) zone beyond the stricken
complex to leave. Edano said the residents should move because
it was difficult to get supplies to the area, and not because of
elevated radiation.

Kazuo Suzuki, 56, who has moved from his house near the
nuclear plant to an evacuation centre, said neighbours he had
talked to by telephone said delivery trucks were not going to
the exclusion zone because of radiation worries.

“So goods are running out, meaning people have to drive to
the next town to buy things. But there is a fuel shortage there
too, so they have to wait in long queues for gasoline to use the
car.”

Radiation levels at the evacuation centre were within a
normal range of about 0.16 microsievert, according to a Reuters
geiger counter reading.

In Japan’s northeast, more than a quarter of a million
people remain in shelters, and the impact on livelihoods is
becoming clearer. The quake and tsunami not only wiped out homes
and businesses but also a fishing industry that was the
lifeblood of coastal communities.

“Fishermen lost their gear, ships and just about everything.
About half will probably get out of the business,” said Yuko
Sasaki, a fishmonger in the tsunami-hit city of Kamaishi.

The double disaster probably destroyed aqua farms for
abalone, sea urchins, oysters, scallops and seaweed that
authorities say account for 80 percent of the revenue of the
region’s fisheries.

The tsunami obliterated centuries-old fishing ports along
the northeast coast, sending ships adrift in the Pacific Ocean,
to the bottom of the sea, or depositing them on land, where they
now lie among the splintered remains of homes.

(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Chizu Nomiyama and
Shinichi Saoshiro in Tokyo, Jon Herskovitz in Kamaishi, Editing
by Robert Birsel)

WRAPUP 2-Engineers toil to pump out Japan plant; radiation spikes