Radiation 10,000 Times Government Standard at Japan Nuclear Plant

March 27: Police officers in protective suits surround a body found following the March 11 earthquake within 5 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, northern Japan.

March 27: Police officers in protective suits surround a body found following the March 11 earthquake within 5 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, northern Japan.  (AP/Fukushima Prefecture Police Department via Kyodo News)

FUKUSHIMA, Japan -- Officials with the company that operates Japan's tsunami-stricken nuclear plant say radioactive contamination in groundwater underneath a reactor has been measured at 10,000 times the government health standard.

A spokesman for plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. says the company doesn't believe any drinking water supply is affected.

Contaminated water has been pooling at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex since it was damaged by the devastating earthquake and tsunami. It has already leaked into the ocean.

Spokesman Naoyuki Matsumo says the elevated levels of iodine-131 were measured in groundwater 15 meters underneath one of six reactors at the plant. Iodine is a radioactive substance that decays quickly, with half disappearing in eight days.

Because of the radiation leaks a mandatory evacuation zone around the plant has been ordered, and authorities have also recommended people in the 20-mile band might want to leave, too.

Two gigantic concrete pumps -- described as the largest such equipment in the world -- will soon be on their way to join the machinery being used to pour water on damaged reactors in Japan's nuclear crisis, said Putzmeister America Inc. officials Thursday.

The two machines are normally used to spray concrete for new skyscrapers, bridges and other massive construction projects.

The machines are now being retrofitted in North Charleston, S.C., and Sante Fe Springs, Calif.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported Wednesday that radiation levels in a village outside even the voluntary band registered at twice the threshold the agency recommends for evacuations, raising questions about whether to expand the mandatory 12-mile zone.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said authorities are carefully monitoring the radiation in village of Iitate, 25 miles from the plant.

"But we believe the situation does not require any immediate change to our current evacuation policy," he added.

In the shadow of Japan's struggle to stem radioactive leaks from its stricken nuclear complex, police in white moon suits pull bodies of tsunami victims from an evacuated zone in halting work interrupted by radiation alarms.

Authorities are increasingly turning to international help in stabilizing the plant and stemming the tide of radiation, while simultaneously dealing with the other disaster wrought by a March 11 tsunami: the decimation of hundreds of miles of northeastern coastline, the displacement of tens of thousands and the deaths of an estimated 19,000 people.

"We find bodies everywhere -- in cars, in rivers, under debris and in streets," a police official from the hard-hit Fukushima prefecture said Thursday. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Efforts to recover the bodies from the 12-mile evacuation zone around the nuclear plant have been slowed by the scale of destruction and a wasteland of debris, but also by fears of radiation. Police in that prefecture dressed in full radiation suits grabbed 19 corpses from the rubble on Wednesday, the police official said.

Authorities declined to say how many bodies might still be buried in the evacuation zone, but local media have estimated hundreds remain.

Each officer wears a radiation detector and must leave the area whenever its alarm goes off -- a frequent occurrence that has often dragged the operation to a halt, the official said.

"We want to recover bodies quickly, but also must ensure the safety of police officers against nuclear radiation," he said.

Officers were forced to give up trying to recover one corpse Sunday after radiation on it triggered the alarm.

There are also concerns about the disposal of bodies since Japanese tend to cremate their dead, and fires can spread radiation. The Health Ministry recommends that the bodies should all be cleaned and those with even small levels of radiation should be handled only by people wearing suits, gloves and masks.

Police in affected prefectures have so far recovered more than 11,000 bodies, but estimate that at least 19,500 are dead.

Radiation concerns have also complicated efforts to bring the plant itself under control. Contaminated water pooling inside the complex has begun to leak into the ground and ocean and has restricted where crews can work, and puts them in the uncomfortable position of having to pump in more water to continue cooling the reactors while simultaneously pumping out contaminated water.

Japanese officials have struggled to stabilize the plant and are increasingly seeking help to stem and identify leaks. French, American and IAEA experts and robots are all in Japan or on their way.

Not only are officials struggling to get water out of the plant, but they are also beginning to run short of places to put it. Operations at one unit were suspended earlier in the week because its storage tank was filling up. The country's nuclear safety agency said the plant operator is considering a variety of stopgap measures, including bringing in more storage tanks, loading it onto a tanker ship and building a new makeshift waste facility.

Experts in eliminating contaminated water from French nuclear giant Areva arrived in Japan on Wednesday. France is heavily dependent on nuclear power and has offered regular evaluations of the fight in Fukushima.

"The amount of water is enormous, and we need any wisdom available," said nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama. The U.S. has also sent a remote-controlled robot, and officials from the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said they expect to use it within a few days for evaluating areas with high radiation.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who arrived Thursday in Tokyo to speak with the Japanese prime minister, praised the work being done at the plant.

"Every image I have seen is really, really disturbing, and I am really impressed by the workers in Fukushima who work at the nuclear plant with courage," Sarkozy said before meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

Japan has also sought expertise from the U.S., which stations thousands of troops in the Asian country. On Thursday, Tokyo said it was setting up a panel of Japanese and American nuclear experts and American military personnel to address the Fukushima crisis.