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Rice restricted amid radiation fear

Fears of radiation spread to rice as the planting season began in Japan, prompting the government to ban its cultivation in contaminated soil as fallout leaking from a tsunami-damaged nuclear plant dealt another blow to the national diet.

Vegetables and milk were the first foods that sparked concerns about the safety of Japanese agriculture after the March 11 tsunami flooded the nuclear plant and its reactors began to overheat and spew radiation

But those worries intensified when highly radioactive water was spotted gushing from the complex into the Pacific and contaminated fish showed up in catches.

"We had to come up with a policy quickly because we are in planting season," said Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano.

The ban will apply to any soil found to contain high levels of radioactive caesium, and farmers who cannot grow rice will be compensated. Rice grown in uncontaminated soil will be screened.

Yoshiyuki Ueda, a 47-year-old rice farmer from the town of Futaba, where the damaged nuclear plant is located, said he had already given up on trying to plant this year's crop because of radiation fears. "The ground is ruined," he said. "I think it will be a long time until things return to normal."

Rice is revered in Japanese culture, and the word for cooked rice, "gohan," also means meal. It is the key ingredient in sake, and citizens proudly buy locally grown varieties.

Plant workers have spent the past month frantically trying to stop radiation from spewing by restoring cooling systems, but they still have a long way to go. Radiation in water pooling around the plant has slowed the efforts to stabilise the reactors, but workers made progress on Saturday toward cleaning up that contamination.

In an unusual - and controversial - plan, engineers decided earlier this month to deliberately pump less contaminated water into the ocean from a storage facility they thought might make a good receptacle for the more highly radioactive water.

That dump is expected to finish on Sunday, and technicians already are beginning to ensure that the building is watertight, according to nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama.

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