NARA, Japan | Fears of nuclear fallout grew during a wet Sunday after officials reported traces of radioactive elements in milk, spinach, water and rain across northern and central Japan and technicians continued to battle overheated reactors at the Fukushima power plant.
Crews from the Tokyo fire and police departments, using an unmanned vehicle, sprayed seawater for 13 hours onto the decimated reactor Unit 3, which contains plutonium and uranium, only to see pressure rise and then stabilize on Sunday, government officials said.
They also tried to top up pools holding potentially exposed spent fuel rods thought to be emitting radiation into the cold, rainy atmosphere around Fukushima prefecture.
Crews connected electrical cables to Unit 2 but continued to delay plans to restart vital cooling systems, possibly damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan.
More than eight days after the quake, police rescued a teenage boy and an 80-year-old woman who survived on yogurt inside their collapsed home.
The efforts cheered some of the estimated 500,000 survivors in shelters who are still looking for loved ones in obliterated communities across northeastern Japan, where increasing numbers of volunteers are hoping to bring supplies to remote areas lacking electricity on freezing nights.
Consumers across Japan and neighboring countries grew increasingly wary of agricultural products from the crisis area. Taiwan found small, unharmful traces of iodine in Japanese fava beans, and Japanese officials reported small traces of iodine and cesium in Spinach in Ibaraki province, far beyond the government’s 18-mile danger zone and an 50-mile radius designated by the United States and other countries.
Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, said the low levels of radiation posed no public health risks.
“If you eat it once, or twice, or even for several days, it’s not just that it’s not an immediate threat to health. It’s that even in the future, it is not a risk,” he said. “Experts say there is no threat to human health.”
No contamination has been reported in Japan’s main food export, seafood, worth about $1.6 billion a year and less than 0.3 percent of its total exports.
About 435 miles southwest of the smoldering nuclear power plant, people who fled Tokyo and the northeast filled hotels in Osaka, Kobe and the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara.
Etsuko Okamoto, a retiree from Tokyo staying at the Nikko hotel in Nara, said she was still afraid to go back to Tokyo, beset with a record number of aftershocks and fears of contamination.
“I am too old to escape from my old house by myself,” she said. “I don’t know how long I will have to stay here, and it is rather expensive. But at least I am safe.”
Keith Paddington, an English teacher from Britain, said he has been camping in a park near Nara’s ancient palace because he distrusts the government’s assurances that radioactive elements found in the Tokyo water supply are safe.
“I’ve been to Nara four times now, and it’s beautiful, but I really don’t want to be here,” he says, sitting near a mountain bike and a few small bags of clothing he brought on the train from Tokyo last week.
“I want to go home to Tokyo, but I just don’t believe it’s safe enough yet.”
He said only three of his 33 Japanese students have fled Tokyo, where many are trying to live normal lives despite shortages.
“They’re afraid of losing their jobs if they go when others are staying. It makes them look bad,” he said.
“It’s not right for Japanese companies to make their staff come to work. They should let them leave Tokyo if they want, for their own safety.”
Fukushima residents are wondering whether they will ever be able to live again in areas around radiation leakages.
“I still have no idea what the numbers they are giving about radiation levels mean. It’s all so confusing,” said Tsugumi Hasegawa, who was sheltering with 1,400 people in a gym in Fukushima city, about 50 miles from his home in Futaba, the site of the plant. “And I wonder if they aren’t playing down the dangers to keep us from panicking. I don’t know whom to trust.”
Kazuma Yokota, a nuclear safety official, said the government gave Fukushima residents anti-radiation pills three days too late.
“It is true that we had not foreseen a disaster of these proportions. We had not practiced or trained for something this bad,” he said. “We must admit that we were not fully prepared.”
Growing concerns about radiation add to the overwhelming chain of disasters Japan has endured since the magnitude 9.0 quake. It spawned a tsunami that ravaged the northeastern coast, killing 8,450 people, leaving more than 12,900 people missing, and displacing another 452,000, who are living in shelters.
Bodies are piling up in some of the devastated communities and badly decomposing even in the chilly rain and snow.
“The recent bodies — we can’t show them to the families. The faces have been purple, which means they are starting to decompose,” said Shuji Horaguchi, a disaster relief official setting up a center to process the dead in Natori, on the outskirts of the tsunami-flattened city of Sendai.
“Some we’re finding now have been in the water for a long time; they’re not in good shape.”