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Tokyo stores stripped of basics as radiation in water spreads fear

Nearly two weeks of rolling blackouts, supply distribution problems and contamination fears prompted by a radiation-leaking, tsunami-damaged nuclear plant have left Tokyo stores stripped bare of some basic necessities. Some people are turning to the city's ubiquitous vending machines to find increasingly scarce bottles of water.

At the source of the anxiety -- the overheated nuclear plant -- there was yet another setback Thursday as two workers were injured when they stepped into radiation-contaminated water. They were treated at a hospital.

Supplies of bottled water grew scarce in Tokyo, one day after city officials warned that the level of radioactive iodine in the tap water was more than twice what is considered safe for babies to drink. Tests conducted Thursday showed the levels in the city's water fell to acceptable limits for infants, but they were up in neighboring regions.

Frightened Tokyo residents hoping to stock up on bottled water and other goods flocked to shops across the city, some of which tried to prevent hoarding by imposing buying limits.

"The first thought was that I need to buy bottles of water," said Reiko Matsumoto, a real estate agent and mother of a 5-year-old, who rushed to a nearby store to stock up on supplies. "I also don't know whether I can let her take a bath."

The shortages were mainly limited to staples, such as rice, instant noodles and milk. Vegetables, meat and tofu, meanwhile, were readily available in most places.

Japan has been grappling with an avalanche of miseries that began with a massive, 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11. That triggered a violent tsunami, which ravaged the northeast coast, killed an estimated 18,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. The earthquake and tsunami also damaged the critical cooling system at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which overheated and began spewing radiation.

Workers have been struggling to get the cooling system operating again, but their efforts have been hampered by explosions, fires and radiation scares. Lighting was restored Thursday to the central control room at Unit 1 for the first time since the earthquake and tsunami.

But two workers were hospitalized after stepping into contaminated water while laying electrical cables in one unit, according to nuclear and government officials. The water seeped over the top of their boots and onto their legs, said Takashi Kurita, spokesman for plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co.

They likely suffered "beta ray burns," Tokyo Electric said, citing doctors. They tested at radiation levels between 170 to 180 millisieverts, well below the maximum 250 millisieverts allowed for workers, said Fumio Matsuda, a spokesman for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The men will be transferred to a radiology medical institute today, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, another nuclear agency spokesman. Their injuries were not life-threatening.

More than two dozen people have been injured trying to bring the plant, located 140 miles northeast of Tokyo, under control.

The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami continued to rise, with more than 9,800 bodies counted and more than 17,500 people listed as missing. Those tallies may overlap, but police from one of the hardest-hit prefectures, Miyagi, estimate that the deaths will top 15,000 in that region alone.

In Tokyo, new readings Thursday showed the city's tap water was back to levels acceptable for infants, but the relief was tempered by elevated levels in two neighboring prefectures: Chiba and Saitama. A city in a third prefecture, just south of the plant, also showed high levels of radioactive iodine in tap water, officials said.

Tap water in Kawaguchi City in Saitama, north of Tokyo, contained 210 becquerels of radioactive iodine -- well above the 100 becquerels considered safe for babies but below the 300-becquerel level for adults, Health Ministry official Shogo Misawa said.

In the frigid northeast, about 660,000 households still do not have water, the government said. Electricity has not been restored to 209,000 homes, Tohoku Electric Power Co. said. Damage is estimated at $309 billion, making it the most costly natural disaster on record.

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