Authorities in Japan say they are unable to collect up to 1,000 dead bodies lying within 20-kilometers of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant because of fears the corpses are too contaminated with radiation.
A Kyodo news report Thursday says the victims were killed in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disasters, and that their bodies were exposed to high levels of radiation after death.
Police sources warn that if the families of the victims cremate the bodies, as is the tradition in Japan, it could release more radioactive materials into the environment.
The confirmed death toll from the twin disasters is above 11,400, with more than 16,500 still missing.
Meantime, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for the world's nations to establish common nuclear safety standards to make sure there is never a repetition of the Japanese nuclear crisis.
Appearing alongside Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Tokyo Thursday, Sarkozy said there is no viable alternative to nuclear power at this time, but that improved safety standards must be negotiated by the end of this year.
Kan said his priority at the moment is to stabilize the situation at the nuclear plant, which has been spewing various forms of radiation since its cooling systems were knocked out.
The leaders spoke as radiation levels continue to rise in the ocean near Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, raising fears of an undetected radiation leak into the sea.
Officials at Japan's nuclear safety agency said radiation in the latest sampling from the ocean near the Fukushima plant's discharge pipes was at 4,385 times the legal limit.
Japanese authorities are considering expanding the 20-kilometer evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant, after the International Atomic Energy Agency detected levels of radiation at twice the standard for evacuation in a village 40 kilometers away.
Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters the radiation level still was not considered threatening unless it persists over a period of time. In that case, he said, the government will have no choice but to consider a wider evacuation.
About 70,000 people have already been evacuated from the 20-kilometer radius around the plant. Expanding the zone to 30 kilometers would require moving another 136,000, adding to pressures on a government that already has almost 200,000 earthquake victims living in temporary shelters.
A nuclear agency spokesman said most of the residents of IItate have already left, but about 100 refuse to leave their homes.
Radioactive materials have also contaminated vegetables and milk from farms around the Fukushima plant, prompting several foreign governments, including the United States, to ban imports from the region.
U.S. officials say very low levels of radiation also have been detected in milk samples on the U.S. west coast.
Operators of the plant reported some progress in pumping highly contaminated water out of the basements and adjacent utility tunnels at three of the plant's six reactors. The water must be removed before workers can complete repairs to the pumps that run the plant's vital cooling systems.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.