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Japan fears nuclear fuel rod meltdown at Fukushima

Readings at stricken Fukushima plant indicate possible sea water contamination.

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Yukiko Kometa, 74 years old, stands in front of her tsunami devastated house at Noda village, Iwate prefecture on March 27, 2011. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Radiation readings at one of Japan’s stricken nuclear reactors indicate a partial meltdown and possible seawater contamination, officials said Monday as the plant’s operator came under renewed pressure for its handling of the crisis.

Measurements of water inside the No. 2 reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ich power station suggest a possible fuel rod breach, further complicating efforts to bring the tsunami-hit plant under control, government spokesman Yukio Edano said.

"The radiation seems to have come from fuel rods that temporarily melted down and came in contact with the water used to cool the reactor,” he said, according to the BBC.

"Steam may have condensed... carrying water from within the containment vessel," he said.

Kyodo news said high levels of radiation had also been found in trench of water outside the No. 2 reactor's turbine building, raising concerns that radioactive substances may have seeped into the nearby sea.

Anxiety over contamination levels within Fukushima intensified last week when several workers were hospitalized after coming into contact with dangerous levels of radiation.

Edano criticized plant operator Tepco over safety procedures after the company on Sunday mistakenly reported that radiation readings at the plant were 10 million times higher than normal, instead of 100,000 times.

"Considering the fact that the monitoring of radioactivity is a major condition to ensure safety, this kind of mistake is absolutely unacceptable," Edano said.

"The bumbling offers alarming insight into the embarrassing failure of crisis management at the nation's top utility, which rakes in 5 trillion yen ($60 billion) in annual sales," The Associated Press said.

Shares in Tepco plunged to a 31-year low on Monday as Tokyo stocks fell across the board due to pessimism over the nuclear incident, the Wall Street Journal said.

With no end yet in sight to the crisis, Edano urged residents living near the reactor to remain outside a 12-mile exclusion zone amid reports that some locals were returning to their homes to fetch belongings.

“It is very likely that within 20 kilometers from the plant is contaminated and there is a big risk at the moment,” he said.

More than two weeks on from the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, there was another alert after an earthquake measuring 6.5 was felt close to the disaster zone. Warnings of a 20-inch tsunami were imposed then later lifted following the aftershock.

The death toll from the March 11 disasters now stands at more than 10,800 with more than 16,200 missing, broadcaster NHK said, as quoted by the New York Times. A further 190,000 people are being housed in temporary shelters.

-- Barry Neild

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/japan/110328/japan-nuclear-fuel-rod-meltdown