White House Photo

U.S. President Barack Obama has told the Japanese prime minister the United States is determined to support the people of Japan as they struggle to cope with what has become the world’s costliest natural disaster.

A White House statement released late Tuesday in Washington said Mr. Obama called Prime Minister Naoto Kan from on board Air Force One to renew his repeated pledges of both short-term and long-term support. A U.S. naval task force involving 19 ships, 133 aircraft and 18,165 personnel is already stationed off Japan providing relief to victims of Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Japan has also sought U.S. expertise in dealing with the crisis at the earthquake-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, whose operators came in for rare public criticism from Mr. Kan earlier Tuesday. The prime minister told Japan’s parliament that his government is on “maximum alert” as it seeks to deal with nuclear radiation leaking from the plant.

Mr. Kan told parliament that the plant’s operators, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, had failed to make adequate preparations for the tsunami that knocked out vital cooling systems at the plant. The tidal wave is estimated to have been 12 meters high, more than twice the height the plant’s seawall was designed to withstand.

The Japanese prime minister also criticized TEPCO for positioning back-up diesel generators in the basements of nuclear reactor buildings, where they were swamped by seawater and disabled. The generators were meant to keep cooling systems operating at the reactors and prevent overheating that could lead to meltdowns, in the event of an earthquake-triggered electricity shutdown.

The Reuters news agency says it reviewed a 2007 safety study by TEPCO researchers who concluded there was a 10 percent chance that a tsunami could pose a challenge to or overrun the nuclear plant’s defenses within a 50-year period.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said Tuesday the government is doing everything it can to bring the situation at the Fukushima plant under control, with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and U.S. military providing support. The complex has been leaking radiation into surrounding areas since the disaster.

Japanese officials also said plutonium has been detected in the soil in five locations around the nuclear plant, suggesting a meltdown had occurred in the number 3 reactor, the only one of six at the complex that uses plutonium in its fuel. The discovery was the latest setback in the 18-day effort to shut down the reactors.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said the plutonium readings did not exceed normal background levels, but also indicated that at least some of the radioactive substance leaked from the nuclear plant.

TEPCO’s stock price tumbled 19 percent in trading Tuesday after Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the government is considering taking control of the company by acquiring a majority stake. Japanese National Strategy Minister Koichiro Gemba said the government is debating a variety of options regarding TEPCO’s future.

Traces of radioactive iodine from the disabled power station have been found as far as Britain and eastern Russia, but officials in both countries have said the levels are very low and not a threat to human health.

Radiation escaping from the plant also has made its way into milk and vegetables in surrounding provinces, ocean waters near the facility and tap water in Tokyo, 220 kilometers to the south.

Damage from the March 11 catastrophe could cost Japan as much as $300 billion, making it the world’s most expensive natural disaster. On Tuesday, Japan’s parliament passed a $1.1 trillion budget, but it may need to raise additional funds to pay for the massive reconstruction effort.

Afghanistan announced Tuesday it was donating $1 million to the victims of the disaster. Japan is one of the biggest donors of development and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was expected to travel to Japan on Wednesday to show support for the battered nation on behalf of the Group of 20 leading world economies.

More bodies are discovered daily as search crews make their way through the rubble of Japan’s northeast coast, bringing the toll by Tuesday to more than 11,000 dead and 17,000 missing. Almost 200,000 more are still living in poorly equipped shelters.

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