TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese power company executive apologized for spreading radiation into the air and sea as regulators said the pumping of radioactive water into waters off Japan from a crippled nuclear plant would end on Sunday, one day later than planned.
The apology from Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) came a day after China and South Korea expressed concern at the discharge of contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi plant smashed by last month's earthquake, reflecting growing international unease over the month-long nuclear crisis.
"I would like to apologies from my heart over the worries and troubles we are causing for society due to the release of radiological materials into the atmosphere and sea water," Sakae Muto, a TEPCO vice president, said on Saturday.
"We caused worry and trouble for having made this decision without taking sufficient time to explain the matter beforehand to those involved, to the press, to the fishing industry and to people overseas, and we are sorry for this," he added.
In Jakarta, Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto explained Japan's crisis policies to counterparts from the 10 ASEAN countries on Saturday and his spokesman urged Japan's neighbors not to exaggerate the low levels of radiation.
"We are quite sorry about the fact that the nuclear plants are causing those worries, concerns all over the world, but you have to check the level of radioactivity that the IAEA is talking about," said spokesman Satoru Sato.
Hidehiko Nishiyama, a deputy director-general at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told reporters on Saturday: "We are working on releasing water ... we are likely to finish this tomorrow."
He said a condenser at the No.2 reactor had been emptied of low-radiation water on Saturday, making room for engineers to shift highly radioactive water from the reactor's trench.
"To prevent radioactive water in the trench from overflowing is an important step considering a possible further contamination of the sea," Nishiyama said.
TEPCO is struggling to contain the worst atomic crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. Engineers say they are far from in control of the damaged reactors and it could take months to stabilize them and years to clear up the toxic mess left behind.
Nishiyama said Japan would look into the electric power back-up system that had failed after the tsunami, leaving operators unable to cool the reactor.
The magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami on March 11 left 28,000 people dead or missing, and northeastern Japan a splintered wreck.
More than 153,000 people affected by the tsunami and radiation are living in school gymnasiums and other evacuation centers, according to the National Police Agency. Several tsunami-damaged cities have begun moving families into temporary housing, NHK state television said.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has been criticized by the Japanese media and opposition parties for his handling of the crisis, will visit shattered fishing villages in Miyagi prefecture on Sunday.
A large slate of big city and prefectural assembly and executive elections on Sunday will pose an indirect test of Kan's popularity. Polls have been postponed for districts affected by the tsunami and nuclear disasters.
GLOBAL RADIATION CONCERNS
Several countries have restricted food imports from Japan over radiation fears as Japan's economy reels from the country's worst disaster since World War Two.
Food is a tiny part of Japan's export-oriented economy, but disruptions to its manufacturing and electronics supply chains are reverberating around the world.
China will ban imports of farm produce from 12 areas in Japan, China's quarantine authority said.
China said earlier it had detected 10 cases of ships, aircraft or cargo arriving from Japan with higher than normal levels of radiation since mid-March.
"China has the full authority to take necessary measures but we are hoping that those measures would be reasonable," said Sato in Jakarta.
South Korea has also criticized Japan, accusing it of incompetence for failing to notify its neighbors that it would pump radioactive water into the sea.
Radiation from Japan spread around the entire northern hemisphere in the first two weeks of the nuclear crisis, according to the Vienna-based Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization.
The world's third largest economy is now in a "severe condition," the government said on Friday.
Finance leaders of the G20 group of countries will ask Tokyo for a plan to resuscitate its economy as they see the damage from the earthquake as a risk to global growth, Takatoshi Kato, a former IMF deputy managing director, told Reuters on Friday.
Automaker Toyota Motor Corp plans to idle some of U.S. plants late in April, while Honda Motor Co Ltd has extended reduced U.S. production until April 22.
Power blackouts and restrictions, factory shutdowns, and a sharp drop in tourists have hit the world's most indebted nation, which is facing a damage bill as high as $300 billion, making it by far the world's costliest natural disaster.
Economists expect Japan to slip into recession this year.
(Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota, Shinichi Saoshiro, Olivia Rondonuwu in Jakarta, Ben Blanchard and Sui-lee Wee in Beijing, Jacqueline Wong in Shanghai, Jack Kim in Seoul; Writing by Paul Eckert and Daniel Magnowski; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)