TOKYO- The World Health Organisation said on Monday that radiation in food after an earthquake damaged a Japanese nuclear plant was a “serious situation”, eclipsing the first clear signs of progress in a battle to avert a catastrophic meltdown in the reactors.
Engineers have restored electricity to three reactors at the Fukushima complex, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, and hope to soon test water pumps there to reverse the overheating that has triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.
The Japanese government says the March 11 earthquake and tsunami left more than 21,000 people dead or missing and will cost the economy some $250 billion in damages.
The health ministry has urged some residents near the Daiichi plant in Fukushima to stop drinking tap water after high levels of radioactive iodine were detected.
Cases of contaminated vegetables and milk have already stoked anxiety despite assurances from officials that the levels are not dangerous. The government has prohibited the sale of raw milk from Fukushima prefecture and spinach from a nearby area.
“Quite clearly it’s a serious situation,” Peter Cordingley, Manila-based spokesman for the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) regional office for the Western Pacific, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“It’s a lot more serious than anybody thought in the early days when we thought that this kind of problem can be limited to 20 to 30 kilometres ... It’s safe to suppose that some contaminated produce got out of the contamination zone.”
He added that there was no evidence of contaminated food from Fukushima reaching other countries.
Japan is a net importer of food, but has substantial exports mainly fruit, vegetables, dairy products and seafood -- with its biggest markets in Hong Kong, China and the United States.
MOODY’S SEES INCREASED DOWNSIDE RISK
The World Bank, citing private estimates of between $122 billion and $235 billion for the cost, said the disaster would depress Japanese economic growth briefly before reconstruction kicks off and gives the beleaguered economy a boost.
Moody’s Investors Service said in a report that the downside risks from the crisis had increased over the past week for the country’s economy, sovereign credit, banking, insurance and non-financial corporate sectors.
However, in a much-needed boost for Japan’s battered stock market, billionaire investor Warren Buffett said the earthquake and tsunami were an “enormous blow” but should not prompt the selling of Japanese shares. Instead, he called the events a “buying opportunity”.
“It will take some time to rebuild. But it will not change the economic future of Japan.
If I owned Japanese stocks, I would certainly not be selling them,” Buffett said during a visit to a South Korean factory run by a company that is owned by one of his funds.
Japan’s crisis spooked markets last week, prompted rare intervention by the G7 group of rich nations to stabilise the yen, and fuelled concerns the world economy may suffer because of disrupted supplies to the auto and technology industries.
Tokyo’s markets were closed for a holiday on Monday. The Nikkei index shed 10 percent last week, wiping $350 billion off market capitalisation.
SITUATION REMAINS CRITICAL AT PLANT
At Fukushima, 300 engineers have worked around the clock inside an evacuation zone to contain the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986.
They have been spraying the coastal complex with thousands of tonnes of sea water so fuel rods will not overheat and emit more radiation. Hopes for a more permanent solution depend on electricity cables reactivating on-site water pumps at each of the six reactors.
“There have been some positive developments in the last 24 hours but overall the situation remains very serious,” said Graham Andrew, a senior official of the IAEA.
Working in suits sealed by duct tape, engineers have connected power cables to the No. 2, 5 and 6 reactors and plan to start testing systems soon, officials say.
The most badly damaged reactors are No. 3 and 4, which were both hit by explosions last week.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, asked by CNN whether the worst of Japan’s 10-day nuclear crisis was over, said on Sunday: “Well, we believe so, but I don’t want to make a blanket statement.”
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko added that radiation levels at the plant appeared to be falling.
However, the situation was far from under control.
Japan’s nuclear safety agency said pressure was rising in the most threatening reactor, No. 3, which contains highly toxic plutonium, and this may have to be released by “venting” steam, a step taken last week that discharged low levels of radiation into the atmosphere.
If the cooling pumps cannot restart, drastic measures may be needed like burying the plant in sand and concrete.
Disaster could cost Japan $235 billion: WBank
SINGAPORE (AFP) - Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami could cost its economy up to $235 billion, or 4.0 percent of output, and reconstruction may take five years, the World Bank said Monday.
“If history is any guide, real GDP growth will be negatively affected through mid-2011,” the World Bank said in its latest East Asia and Pacific Economic Update report.
But growth should pick up in subsequent quarters “as reconstruction efforts, which could last five years, accelerate”, it added.
The lower end of the World Bank’s estimate of the twin disasters’ impact was $122 billion, equivalent to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
Since the natural disasters struck on March 11, Japan has also had to grapple with a nuclear power plant crisis in Fukushima, but the World Bank did not mention the atomic issue in its assessment of the economic damage.
Japanese financial markets were closed Monday. On Friday, Japan and its fellow G7 rich nations vowed to intervene in currency markets to stem the yen’s rise and support Japan’s economy.
The dollar immediately strengthened after the move and was trading at 80.90 yen in morning Asian trade Monday, up from 80.59 in New York on Friday.
Japan’s GDP grew 3.9 percent in 2010, when it was overtaken by China as the world’s second-biggest economy. But Japan has been mired in a malaise for years, since a property bubble imploded in the early 1990s.
Vikram Nehru, the World Bank’s chief regional economist, said the Japan disasters would affect the rest of Asia but it was too early to give estimates of the cost to the region.
“In the immediate future, the biggest impact will be in terms of trade and finance,” he told reporters in Singapore.
The World Bank noted that after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, Japan’s trade slowed only for a few quarters, with imports recovering fully within a year and exports rebounding to 85 percent of pre-quake levels in the same period.