Japan races to find tsunami victims
Japanese police are racing to find thousands of missing bodies before they decompose along a stretch of tsunami-pummelled 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 north-eastern 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 evacuation zone around the plant. Officials now say there is not much time left to find and identify the dead, and are ramping up those efforts.
"We have to find bodies now as they are decomposing," said Ryoichi Tsunoda, a police spokesman in Fukushima prefecture, where the plant is located. "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 on Wednesday, technicians 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.
After notching that rare victory, technicians began pumping nitrogen into the chamber of the 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 US 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.