Japan progresses on nuke crisis; 'more than 20,000 dead'

Critical No. 3 reactor at Fukushima plant stabilized; technicians hope to restore electricity to water pumps; Police: 15,000 killed in one prefecture.

Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in Japan (photo credit: REUTERS/DigitalGlobe/Handout)
Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in Japan
(photo credit: REUTERS/DigitalGlobe/Handout)
TOKYO - Japan made some progress on Sunday in its race to avert disaster at a nuclear power plant leaking radiation after an earthquake and tsunami that are estimated to have killed more than 15,000 people in one prefecture alone.
Three hundred engineers have been battling inside the danger zone to salvage the six-reactor Fukushima plant in the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl 25 years ago.
RELATED:Japan halts sale of food from near FukushimaJapan's Jewish community raises money for relief efforts"I think the situation is improving step by step," Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama told a news conference.
Police said they believed more than 15,000 people had been killed by the double disaster in Miyagi prefecture, one of four that took the brunt of the tsunami damage. In total, more than 20,000 are dead or missing, police said.
The unprecedented crisis will cost the world's third largest economy as much as $200 billion and require Japan's biggest reconstruction push since post-World War Two.
It has also set back nuclear power plans the world over.
Encouragingly for Japanese transfixed on work at the Fukushima complex, the most critical reactor -- No. 3, which contains highly toxic plutonium -- stabilized after fire trucks doused it for hours with hundreds of tonnes of water.
"We believe the water is having a cooling effect," an official of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said.
Work also advanced on bringing power back to water pumps used to cool overheating nuclear fuel, and temperatures at spent fuel pools in reactors No. 5 and 6 were returning to normal.
Technicians attached a power cable to Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6 reactors, hoping to restore electricity later in the day prior to an attempt to switch the pumps on.
They aim to reach No. 4 on Monday or Tuesday.
If successful, that could be a turning point in a crisis rated as bad as America's 1979 Three Mile Island accident.
If not, drastic measures may be required such as burying the plant in sand and concrete, as happened at Chernobyl in 1986, though experts warn that could take many months and the fuel had to be cooled first.
On the negative side, evidence has begun emerging of radiation leaks from the plant, including into food and water.
Though public fear of radiation runs deep, and anxiety has spread as far as the Pacific-facing side of the United States, Japanese officials say levels so far are not alarming.