TOKYO — Cherry trees are blossoming across Japan at a time when people aren't in the mood to celebrate.
Picnics typically held under the pink-flowering trees to herald spring's arrival are being canceled as the nation reels from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Sanja Matsuri, a three-day festival in Tokyo that draws about 1.5 million people in May, was called off in deference to the more than 27,652 people who died or are missing from the disaster.
Closer to the battered nuclear facility, contamination levels spiked offshore, and workers continued to endure soaring radiation levels as they worked to stave off a full-scale nuclear meltdown.
The chairman of the utility that runs the crippled Fukushima power plant on Wednesday said four reactors would have to be scrapped.
Tsunehisa Katsumata, chairman of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., expressed his deep remorse for the accident at Fukushima in northern Japan, including explosions, the release of radiation and contamination of crops and tap water. Although Katsumata referred to scrapping reactors No. 1 through 4, government officials and other experts have been saying for more than a week that the entire complex, including the less problematic reactors 5 and 6, would have to be decommissioned.
Katsumata's remarks came as authorities working to bring the plant under control said they were considering new methods to limit radiation leakages from the facility, including draping some kind of large tarp or cloth over the reactors and applying resin or glue to the ground to prevent contamination of the soil. Experts are also mulling whether radioactive water that has flooded parts of the facility could be sucked up and placed in a barge.
Radioactive material continues to seep from the plant. The government's nuclear agency said Wednesday that radioactive iodine-131 had been detected at 3,355 times the legal limit in seawater several hundred yards from the Fukushima plant. Specialists said the diluting effect of the ocean meant there was negligible concern about the impact on human health.
Eventually, Katsumata said, the Fukushima plant could be entombed in concrete.
Hironobu Unesaki, professor of nuclear engineering at Kyoto University, said a cover could be an effective way to control gaseous emissions from the reactors. But he said it would likely not have an impact on the water leaking from a pipe or a compression chamber at the base of the reactor, as the company suspects is happening.
Workers made limited progress Wednesday in eliminating radioactive water from the cavernous turbine rooms next to the first three nuclear reactors.
Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency urged the Japanese government to consider widening the evacuation zone around the facility. Recent radiation readings outside the exclusion zone show radiation substantially higher than levels at which the U.N. nuclear agency would recommend evacuations.
The comments could add to the debate over how far people need to stay away from the nuclear complex.
Elena Buglova, an IAEA official, said radiation at the village of Iitate, about 25 miles from the Fukushima complex, "was about two times higher" than levels at which the agency recommends evacuations.
People living within 12 miles of the plant have been told to leave, while those living between 12 and 18 miles have been urged to move out or stay indoors.
In the United States on Wednesday, the EPA and FDA announced finding minuscule amounts of iodine-131, likely from Fukushima, in milk from Washington state. The amount detected was "more than 5,000 times lower" than the amount that would trigger FDA restrictions, the agency said.
Experts from the French utility Areva arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday to give advice on the situation at Fukushima, expanding the team of international specialists there. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko came to Tokyo earlier in the week.
Information from Bloomberg News, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post was used in this report.