Japan today ordered emergency workers to withdraw from its stricken nuclear plant amid a surge in radiation, temporarily suspending efforts to cool the overheating reactors.
Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said the workers, who have been dousing the reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant with seawater in a frantic effort to stabilise their temperatures, had no choice but to pull back from the most dangerous areas.
“The workers cannot carry out even minimal work at the plant now,” Edano said earlier, as smoke billowed above the crippled complex. “Because of the radiation risk, we are on stand-by.”
The nuclear crisis has triggered international alarm and partly overshadowed the human tragedy caused by Friday’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, a blast of black seawater which pulverised Japan’s north-eastern coastline. The quake was one of the strongest recorded in history.
Officials said that they were considering using helicopters to dump water on to the most troubled reactors in a desperate effort to cool them down, but Edano has already warned that may not work.
Radiation levels later subsided and it is understood that the workers have been allowed back in. The workers at the forefront of the fight - a core team of 70 - had been regularly rotated in and out of the danger zone to minimise their radiation exposure.
Meanwhile, officials in Ibaraki prefecture, just south of Fukushima, said radiation levels were about 300 times normal levels by late morning. While those levels are unhealthy for prolonged periods, they are far from fatal, they said.
Days after Friday’s twin disasters, millions of people were struggling along the coast with little food, water or heat, and already chilly temperatures dropped further as a cold front moved in.
Up to 450,000 people are staying in temporary shelters, often sleeping on the floor of school gymnasiums.
More than 11,000 people are officially listed as dead or missing, but most officials believe the final death toll will be well over 10,000 people.