Radiation fears rise after Japan nuclear workers hurt

Japanese PM says nuclear crisis "nowhere near" being resolved; nuclear official says there's danger of damage to reactor but no crack.

Japanese police after radiation screening 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Kyodo)
Japanese police after radiation screening 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kyodo)
TOKYO - Radiation fears escalated in Japan on Friday after workers suffered burns as they tried to cool an earthquake-crippled nuclear power station, while the government sowed confusion over whether it was widening an evacuation zone around the plant.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, making his first public statement on the crisis in a week, said the situation at the Fukushima nuclear complex north of Tokyo was "nowhere near the point" of being resolved.
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"We are making efforts to prevent it from getting worse, but I feel we cannot become complacent," he told reporters. "We must continue to be on our guard."
The comments reflected a spike of unease in Japan after several days of slow but steady progress in containing the nuclear accident, which was triggered by a devastating earthquake and tsunami two weeks ago.
The 9.0 magnitude quake and giant waves it triggered left more than 10,000 people dead and 17,500 missing.
As shocking as that toll is, much attention since the March 11 disaster has been on the possibility of a catastrophic meltdown at Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.
The government prodded tens of thousands of people living in a 20 km-30 km (12-18 mile) zone beyond the stricken complex to leave, but insisted it was not widening a 20 km evacuation zone.
China, meanwhile, said two Japanese travelers arriving in the country were found to have very high levels of radiation.
Three workers trying to cool one of the most critical reactors at the plant were exposed to radiation levels 10,000 times higher than normal, raising the possibility of a leak of radioactive material through a crack in the core's container.
That would mean a serious reversal following slow progress in getting the plant back under control.
The reactor, No. 3 of six, is the only one to use plutonium in its fuel mix which is more toxic than the uranium used in the other reactors. The government called for an investigation into why such high levels of radiation had suddenly appeared.
More than 700 engineers have been working in shifts to stabilize the plant but they pulled back from some parts when the workers were hurt on Thursday. Two of the men suffered radiation burns when contaminated water seeped over their shoes .
Nuclear agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama said there was a possibility of damage to the reactor but he later told reporters: "It could be from venting operations and there could be some water leakage from pipes or from valves, but there is no data suggesting a crack."
Hideo Morimoto, director at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, also played down fears.
"I feel if the pressure vessel has been seriously damaged, then far more radiation would have leaked," he said.
UN nuclear watchdog IAEA said a total of 17 workers had received elevated levels of radiation since the operations began, but the other 14 did not suffer burns.
Two of the reactors are now seen as safe but the other four are volatile, occasionally emitting steam and smoke. But work is advancing to restart water pumps to cool their fuel rods.
Authorities have been using seawater to cool the rectors but that is not ideal as it corrosive and leaves salt deposits that constrict the amount of water that can cool the rods.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said it started injecting freshwater into the pressure vessels of reactors No.1 and No.3 and expected to start injecting freshwater into No. 2 soon.