Japan suspends work at stricken nuclear plant

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 2:33 AM

FUKUSHIMA, Japan -- Japan ordered emergency workers to withdraw from its stricken nuclear plant Wednesday 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 with seawater in a frantic effort to stabilize 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, as smoke billowed above the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex. "Because of the radiation risk we are on standby."

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 that pulverized Japan's northeastern coastline. The quake was one of the strongest recorded in history.

Later Wednesday, officials said they were considering using helicopters to dump water onto the most troubled reactors in a desperate effort to cool them down.

But Edano has already warned that may not work.

"It's not so simple that everything will be resolved by pouring in water. We are trying to avoid creating other problems," he said.

"We are actually supplying water from the ground, but supplying water from above involves pumping lots of water and that involves risk. We also have to consider the safety of the helicopters above," he said.

Radiation levels had gone down by later Wednesday, but it was not immediately clear if the workers had been allowed back in, or how far away they had withdrawn. The team of workers - a core team of 70 - had been regularly rotated in and out of the danger zone to minimize 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.

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.

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