* Some progress in race to stabilise reactors
* Radiation traces found in food and water
* Quake and tsunami give Japan vast rebuilding task
* More than 7,600 dead, nearly 11,750 missing
By Taiga Uranaka and Yoko Nishikawa
TOKYO, March 20 Japan made some progress in its
race to avert disaster at a tsunami-damaged power plant, though
minor radiation leaks underlined perils from the world's worst
nuclear crisis since Chernobyl 25 years ago.
Three hundred engineers have been battling inside a danger
zone to salvage the six-reactor Fukushima plant since it was hit
by an earthquake and tsunami that also killed 7,653 people and
left 11,746 more missing in northeast Japan.
The unprecedented multiple 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 -- stabilised after fire trucks
doused it for hours with hundreds of tonnes of water.
Work also advanced on bringing power back to water pumps
used to cool overheating nuclear fuel, and Kyodo news agency
reported that temperatures at spent fuel pools in reactors No. 5
and 6 were returning to normal.
"We are making progress ... (but) we shouldn't be too
optimistic," said Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy-general at Japan's
Nuclear Safety Agency.
Technicians attached a power cable to the No. 1 and No. 2
reactors, hoping to restore electricity later in the day prior
to an attempt to switch the pumps on.
They aim to reach No. 3 and 4 soon after that.
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 after the
world's worst nuclear reactor disaster in 1986, though experts
warn that could take many months and the fuel had to be cooled
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.
Traces exceeding national safety standards were, though,
found in milk from a farm about 30 km (18 miles) from the plant
and spinach grown in neighbouring Ibaraki prefecture.
The Japanese government ordered additional tests and
depending on the results may ban sales and shipments of food
products from areas in the vicinity of the plant.
The first discovery of contaminated food since the March 11
disaster is likely to heighten scrutiny of Japanese food
exports, especially in Asia, their biggest market.
Tiny levels of radioactive iodine have also been found in
tap water in Tokyo, one of the world's largest cities about 240
km (150 miles) to south. Many tourists and expatriates have
already left and residents are generally staying indoors.
Facing criticism of its early handling of the situation,
plant operator TEPCO's president issued a public
apology for "causing such great concern and nuisance".
Even after restoring power, the company faces a tricky task
reactivating the cooling pumps, with parts of the system
probably damaged from the quake or subsequent explosions.
"The workers need to go through the plant, figure out what
survived and what didn't, what can be readily repaired and get
the cooling systems back up and running to deal with the cores
and the spent fuel pools," said David Lochbaum, of U.S. nuclear
watchdog the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recognised Japan's
progress during a trip to reassure residents of eastern regions
there was no immediate danger from the nuclear accident.
"Our Japanese colleagues are gradually, not right away and
with mistakes ... getting the situation under control," he said
in the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. "The work is being done
properly, in the right way -- 24 hours a day."
Putin proposed freeing up energy for Japan by increasing
Russian gas supplies to Europe so more liquefied natural gas
(LNG) cargoes could go to the Asian nation.
U.N. watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
also offered encouragement to Tokyo. Its chief Yukiya Amano, who
is Japanese, hailed the "strengthening" of work at the site.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has kept a low profile during
the crisis except for shouting at plant operator Tokyo Electric
Power Co (TEPCO), sounded out the opposition about forming a
government of national unity to deal with the crisis.
But the largest opposition party rejected that.
Showing the incredible power of the 9.0 magnitude
earthquake, the largest to hit tremor-prone Japan since accurate
records began in the early 1900s, Oshika peninsula in Miyagi
prefecture shifted a whole 5.3 metres (17 ft) east and its land
sank 1.2 metres (4 ft).
The quake and ensuing 10-metre high tsunami devastated
Japan's north east coastal region, wiping towns off the map and
making more than 360,000 people homeless in a test for the Asian
nation's reputation for resilience and social cohesion.
Food, water, medicine and fuel are short in some parts, and
low temperatures during Japan's winter are not helping.
The traumatic hunt for bodies and missing people continues.
"This morning my next door neighbour came crying to me that
she still can't find her husband. All I could tell her was,
'We'll do our best, so just hold on a little longer,'" said fire
brigade officer Takao Sato in the disaster zone.
About 257,000 households in the north still have no
electricity and at least one million lack running water.
Japan's crisis spooked markets, prompted a rare intervention
by the G7 group of rich nations to stabilize the yen on Friday,
and fuelled concerns that world economy may suffer because of
disrupted supplies to auto and technology industries.
Automaker General Motors Co said it was suspending
all nonessential spending and global travel, plus freezing
production at a plant in Spain and cancelling two shifts in
Germany while it assessed the impact of the Japan crisis.
(Additional reporting by Elaine Lies, Tomasz Janowski in Tokyo,
and Yoko Kubota and Chang-ran Kim in Rikuzentakata, Gleb
Bryanski in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia, Eileen O'Grady in
Houston, Fredrik Dahl and Sylvia Westall in Vienna, Suzanne
Cosgrove in Chicago, Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Tomasz
Janowski; Editing by Alex Richardson)