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Nuclear leak sparks panic for bottled water in Japan

Workers are doling out bottled water to Tokyo families after residents cleared store shelves because of warnings that radiation from Japan's tsunami-damaged nuclear plant had seeped into the city's water supply.

Anxiety over food and water supplies surged when Tokyo officials reported yesterday that radioactive iodine in the city's tap water was above levels considered dangerous for babies over the long term.

New readings showed the levels had returned to safe levels in Tokyo, but were high in two neighbouring prefectures -- Chiba and Saitama.

"The first thought was that I need to buy bottles of water," said Tokyo real estate agent Reiko Matsumoto, mother of Reina (5). "I also don't know whether I can let her take a bath."

Amid the panic, nuclear workers were still struggling to regain control of the hobbled and overheated Fukushima Dai-ichi plant 140 miles (220km) north of the capital.

The plant has been leaking radiation since a March 11 quake and tsunami knocked out its crucial cooling systems, leading to explosions and fires in four of its six reactors. After setbacks and worrying black smoke forced an evacuation, workers were back inside today, said Hidehiko Nishiyama of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano sought to allay fears over the tap water readings.

"We ask people to respond calmly," he said. "The Tokyo metropolitan government is doing its best."

Households with infants will get three half-litre bottles of water for each baby -- a total of 240,000 bottles -- city officials said, begging Tokyo residents to buy only what they need for fear that hoarding could hurt the thousands of people without any water in areas devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.

Nearly two weeks after the magnitude-9 quake, some 660,000 households still do not have water in Japan's northeast, the government said. Electricity has not been restored to some 209,000 homes, Tohoku Electric Power Co said.

hnews@herald.ie