THE Japanese government has told people not to drink the tap water in a village near the quake-hit nuclear power plant after high levels of radioactive iodine were detected.

The warning came as workers said they were close to restoring power to the Fukushima nuclear plant’s overheating reactors, and as the toll of dead or missing from Japan’s worst natural disaster in nearly a century passed 21,000.

The World Bank also put the financial cost to the economy of the earthquake and tsunami at up to $US235 billion, equivalent to 4.0 per cent of output, and said Japan may need five years to rebuild.

Abnormal but much lower levels of radioactive iodine had already been found in the water supply in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures including Fukushima, where the troubled plant and the village of Iitatemura is located.

The health ministry said 965 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive iodine was found in water which was sampled yesterday in Iitatemura, which is 40 kilometres from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. That is three times the normal level, but about one twenty-sixth of the level of a chest X-ray.  “There is no immediate effect on health if it is taken temporarily,” ministry official Shogo Misawa said of tap water in Iitatemura.

“But as a precaution, we are advising people in the village through the prefectural office to refrain from drinking it.”  The prefecture of Fukushima is preparing to provide about 4,000 people in the village with bottled water, media reports said.

The government said for a second day yesterday that it had discovered abnormal levels of radiation that exceeded the legal limit in milk and spinach from areas near the stricken plant, but they posed no immediate threat to humans.

The findings are nevertheless likely to fuel consumer fears in the wake of a March 11 quake and tsunami which critically damaged the nuclear plant, sending radioactive substances leaking into the air.  With 8,450 people confirmed killed, it is Japan’s deadliest natural disaster since the Great Kanto quake levelled much of Tokyo in 1923.

Another 12,931 are missing, feared swept out to sea by the 10-metre tsunami or buried in the wreckage of buildings.

Cooling systems that are meant to protect the Fukushima plant’s six reactors from a potentially disastrous meltdown were knocked out by the massive waves, and engineers have since been battling to control rising temperatures.  Radiation-suited crews were striving to restore electricity to the ageing facility 250 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, after extending a high-voltage cable into the site from the national grid.

Engineers were checking the cooling and other systems at reactor No. 2 late yesterday, aiming to restore the power soon, operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said.  An external electricity supply has been restored to the distributor but power at the reactor unit was not yet back, spokesman Naohiro Omura said.

“It will take more time. It’s not clear when we can try to restore the systems,” he said.  Fire engines earlier aimed their water jets at the reactors and fuel rod pools, where overheating is an equal concern, dumping thousands of tonnes of seawater from the Pacific.

“Our desperate efforts to prevent the situation worsening are making certain progress,” said chief government spokesman Yukio Edano.  “But we must not underestimate this situation, and we are not being optimistic that things will suddenly improve,” he told a news conference.

Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said the temperature in all spent fuel-rod pools at the facility had dropped below 100 degrees Celsius – suggesting water cooling operations were having some effect.  Authorities said reactors five and six at the Fukushima complex meanwhile were in “stable condition”, Kyodo News reported.

Six workers at the plant have been exposed to high levels of radiation but are continuing to work and have suffered no health problems, TEPCO said.  The UN’s atomic watchdog yesterday noted “some positive developments” at the plant over the past 24 hours, but warned that the crisis there remained serious.

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