Workers battling to see off meltdown at Japan’s damaged nuclear plant have been forced to suspend operations following a rise in radiation levels.
Frantic attempts have been under way to cool down the reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi following a series of blasts triggered by Friday’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami.
But chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said staff now cannot carry out even “minimal work”, adding: “Because of the radiation risk we are on standby.”
He was speaking after smoke was seen rising from reactor three and after a blaze broke out at reactor four for the second time in two days.
Officials had planned to use helicopters and fire engines to spray water in a bid to stave out further radiation leaks and cool down the reactors.
“It’s not so simple that everything will be resolved by pouring in water. We are trying to avoid creating other problems,” Edano said.
Some 140,000 people in the area have been ordered to stay indoors, and panic buying of food and water erupted in Tokyo after radiation was detected in the capital.
Following the crisis in Japan, European energy ministers have agreed at an emergency meeting in Brussels that all 143 nuclear plants in the EU would undergo voluntary “stress tests” to assess the risk from natural disasters.
Energy secretary Chris Huhne insisted he was right to order a UK safety review amid warnings from MPs it could hit investment in a planned new generation of domestic nuclear power stations.
But he also accused other European governments of “rushing to judgments” over the safety of nuclear power in the wake of the Japan crisis.
More than 3,300 people have been confirmed dead and thousands are missing in the wake of last week’s devastating quake.
There have so far been no confirmed reports of British fatalities, but around 17,000 UK nationals are known to have been in Japan at the time the catastrophic quake struck.
More than 500,000 people have been made homeless, and a massive aid effort is under way.
Aftershocks continue to rock the country, and a 6.0 magnitude tremor struck in the Pacific just off Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, on Wednesday.
The Foreign Office’s emergency helpline has been contacted by over 5,480 worried relatives and friends seeking news of loved ones.
The British Embassy has established a 24-hour consular response centre at a Holiday Inn hotel in Sendai.
The Foreign Office has advised against all non-essential travel to Tokyo and north-east Japan.
Concerned friends and relatives of British nationals should contact the Foreign Office on the special number 020 7008 0000.
The crisis has also hit stocks on both sides of the Atlantic, but Japan’s stocks have shown some signs of recovery.
On Tuesday, the Nikkei closed at its lowest level in almost two years after shedding more than 1,600 points, or 16%, over two days.
But it later temporarily temporarily surged more than 6% after Japan’s central bank pumped money into the financial markets.