Radiation fears mount again in Japan after plant workers hurt

TOKYO, (Reuters) – Radiation fears escalated in  Japan today 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.
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.
“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 travellers 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  stabilise 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.
U.N. 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.
The United States has offered to help with two barges  with 525,000 gallons (2.0 million litres) of freshwater.

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