Radiation leaking from Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear plant has been detected in nearby water, beef and even dead bodies left behind by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disasters.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the plant, said radioactive iodine was detected in the groundwater beneath one of the reactors at levels 10,000 times above normal. Japan's Kyodo news agency said this is the first time radiation has been found in groundwater.
Kyodo also reports health officials for the first time have detected radioactive material in beef from Fukushima prefecture that is above the legal limit. Vegetables and milk from farms in the area also have been contaminated, prompting several governments to ban imports from the region.
Radioactive material has spread as far as the United States, where officials report finding very low amounts of radioactive material in milk from the west coast.
Elevated radiation levels also have been detected in sea water near the plant, and in areas as far as 40 kilometers away, prompting the government to consider expanding a 20-kilometer evacuation zone around the facility.
Authorities say they are unable to collect up to 1,000 dead bodies near the plant because of fears the corpses are too contaminated with radiation.
Police sources warn that if the families of the victims cremate the bodies, as is the tradition in Japan, it could release more radioactivity into the environment.
The confirmed death toll from the natural 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.
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.
Expanding the evacuation zone to 30 kilometers would require moving another 136,000 people - adding to pressures on a government that already has almost 200,000 earthquake victims living in temporary shelters.
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 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 and Reuters.