High radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in northeastern Japan is slowing not only attempts to save the stricken nuclear complex but also the recovery of bodies from the initial disaster.

Efforts to recover the dead from the 20-kilometre evacuation zone around the plant have been slowed by a wasteland of debris and radiation fears. Police in that prefecture dressed in full radiation suits retrieved 19 bodies from the rubble Wednesday, a police official speaking on condition of anonymity said.

"We find bodies everywhere — in cars, in rivers, under debris and in streets," the official from the hard-hit Fukushima prefecture said.

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Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan and France's President Nicolas Sarkozy attend their joint news conference in Tokyo Thursday. ((Toru Hanai/Reuters))

Each officer wears a radiation detector and must leave the area whenever an alarm goes off — a frequent occurrence.

"We want to recover bodies quickly but also must ensure the safety of police officers against nuclear radiation," he said.

Officers were forced to give up trying to recover one body Sunday after radiation on it triggered the alarm.

Authorities have declined to say how many bodies might remain, but local media reports estimate the number is in the hundreds. The official death toll has surpassed 11,000 and may approach 20,000.

The Japanese tradition of cremation for the dead has also raised worries because the fires could spread radiation. The Health Ministry recommends bodies be cleaned, and those with even small levels of radiation should be handled only by people wearing suits, gloves and masks.

In the weeks since the disaster, the nuclear crisis at the plant has overshadowed the painstaking work of finding victims in the rubble while rebuilding the world's third-largest economy.

Sarkozy wants new nuclear standards

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the first world leader to visit Japan in the disaster's aftermath, said he wants G20 nuclear power watchdogs to meet in May to discuss new global industry standards,

"We will ask the nuclear safety authorities of the Group of 20 countries to meet, if possible, in Paris during May, to define international nuclear safety standards," Sarkozy said after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

Sarkozy said he would like to see new standards in place by the end of the year.

'Every image I have seen is really, really disturbing, and I am really impressed by the workers in Fukushima who work at the nuclear plant with courage.'— Nicolas Sarkozy, French president

New readings show radiation levels continue to rise in the ocean outside the leaking nuclear plant.

There has been some debate over whether the evacuation zone should be expanded after the International Atomic Energy Agency said radiation levels in the village of Iitate, 40 kilometres from the plant, were twice its suggested threshold for evacuation.

There is a 20-kilometre mandatory evacuation zone around the plant, and authorities have recommended people within a 30-kilometre radius might want to leave, too. The U.S. government had advised the evacuation of its citizens from within an 80-kilometre radius of the plant.

Some frustrated evacuees from within the 20-kilometre zone had begun to return to gather belongings and check on their homes, but officials posted warnings at evacuation centres telling them not to go back.

"There is not only a risk that you may be contaminated, but also that you could contaminate others in the evacuation centres when you return," the warnings said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said authorities are carefully monitoring the radiation in Iitate.

"But we believe the situation does not require any immediate change to our current evacuation policy," he added.

Japan's Health Ministry said Thursday that it had ordered more tests after a cow slaughtered for beef more than 70 kilometres from the plant was found to have radioactive contamination slightly higher than the legal limit.

Officials said the meat did not reach the market, and its total cesium-137 radiation level of 510 becquerels per kilogram was only slightly higher than the legal limit of 500. A person could eat beef with that level of contamination for decades without getting sick.

Contamination has previously been found in vegetables and raw milk near the plant.

Radioactive water pooling under reactors

Desperate measures have been taken to cool the plant's overheated reactors, but the work is complicated by the pooling of radioactive water inside the units, which has restricted the areas where crews can work.

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Protesters shout slogans in front of the head office of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. during an anti-nuclear march in Tokyo on Thursday. ((Issei Kato/Reuters))

Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said the level of radiation in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of the crippled plant has hit a new high.

Authorities measured levels of iodine-131 that were 4,385 times the safety standard some 330 metres south of the plant. On Tuesday, authorities measured radioactivity that was 3,355 times the standard.

Officials with Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the plant, said Thursday that groundwater 15 metres underneath a reactor has been measured at 10,000 times the government health standard, but the company doesn't believe any drinking water supply is affected.

Sarkozy praised the work being done at the Fukushima plant.

"Every image I have seen is really, really disturbing, and I am really impressed by the workers in Fukushima who work at the nuclear plant with courage," Sarkozy said before his meeting with the prime minister.

Experts from French nuclear giant Areva arrived in Japan on Wednesday to assist. France is heavily dependent on nuclear power and has offered regular evaluations of the fight in Fukushima.

On Thursday, the Japanese government said it's setting up a panel of Japanese and American nuclear experts and American military personnel to address the Fukushima crisis.

Tokyo Electric officials said they expect to use a remote-controlled robot sent by the U.S. within a few days to evaluate areas with high radiation.

With files from The Associated Press