Japanese officials claim to have gained steadily in their battle to prevent a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. They have restored power to restart cooling systems, and doused the reactors with water to cool the reactors further.

But if workers are turning the tide, the damage may already have been done. First there were reports of radiation showing up in spinach and milk farmed near the plant. Then more radioactive materials were found in the sea near the plant. “Levels of Iodine-131, which increases the risk of thyroid cancer, were 127 times higher than normal in a sample of seawater taken yesterday,” said Tokyo Electric Power Co. Then, radiation was detected outside the evacuation line at levels 1,600 times above normal. And then, there was this:

The U.S. military is considering the mandatory evacuation of thousands of American troops and their families in Japan out of concern over rising radiation levels, a senior defense official tells CNN.

The official, who did not want to be on the record talking about ongoing deliberations, says there are no discussions to evacuate all U.S. troops across the country. The talks have focused exclusively on U.S. troops in Yokosuka, just south of Tokyo, the official said. Yokosuka is home to America’s largest naval base in Japan. The military is monitoring radiation levels on a constant basis.

So somebody is not at all mollified by the assurances from Fukushima Daiichi. Nor should they be. In fact, we have heard such assurances before.

Just a month before a powerful earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi plant at the center of Japan’s nuclear crisis, government regulators approved a 10-year extension for the oldest of the six reactors at the power station despite warnings about its safety.

The regulatory committee reviewing extensions pointed to stress cracks in the backup diesel-powered generators at Reactor No. 1 at the Daiichi plant, according to a summary of its deliberations that was posted on the Web site of Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency after each meeting. The cracks made the engines vulnerable to corrosion from seawater and rainwater. The generators are thought to have been knocked out by the tsunami, shutting down the reactor’s vital cooling system.

Several weeks after the extension was granted, the company admitted that it had failed to inspect 33 pieces of equipment related to the cooling systems, including water pumps and diesel generators, at the power station’s six reactors, according to findings published on the agency’s Web site shortly before the earthquake [...]

The decision to extend the reactor’s life, and the inspection failures at all six reactors, highlight what critics describe as unhealthy ties between power plant operators and the Japanese regulators that oversee them. Expert panels like the one that recommended the extension are drawn mostly from academia to backstop bureaucratic decision-making and rarely challenge the agencies that hire them.

Sound familiar to you?

The regulators and TEPCO have not shown themselves to be trustworthy before and throughout this episode. So I’ll hold off on breathing a sigh of relief for now.

Meanwhile, without the nuclear issue at all there’s a human tragedy – over 21,000 people are reported dead or missing.