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Atomic crisis deepens in Japan

SENDAI, Japan, Mar 16 – Japanese crews grappling with the world\’s worst nuclear incident since Chernobyl temporarily pulled out Wednesday as radiation rose following feared damage to a reactor containment vessel.

The evacuation order at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, where a tall stack of white cloud billowed high into the sky, deepened the crisis gripping Japan after an earthquake and tsunami pulverised its east coast on Friday.

"Around 10:40 am (0140 GMT) we ordered the evacuation of workers… due to the rise in (radioactivity) data around the gate" of the ageing plant, a nuclear safety agency official said at a televised news conference.

The radiation levels peaked at a relatively low 6.4 millisieverts, officials said, but some three hours later there was no news on whether the crews had been allowed back into the plant 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Tokyo.

With nerves on edge across the world\’s third-biggest economy and beyond, people across Asia have been stripping shelves of essentials for fear of a major emission of radiation from the stricken power plant on the east coast.

Before the evacuation order, crews at Fukushima contended with a new fire and feared damage to the vessel containing one of the plant\’s six reactor cores.

However, after the Tokyo stock exchange\’s biggest two-day sell-off in 24 years sparked a global market rout, the headline Nikkei share index recovered 4.37 percent on Wednesday morning as investors snapped up bargains.

The Bank of Japan pumped another 3.5 trillion yen ($43.3 billion) into the financial system, adding to trillions spent this week since the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and towering tsunami crippled a large swathe of the economy.

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Authorities are staring at a staggering death toll. The devastation in tsunami-hit areas such as the small fishing town of Minamisanriku is absolute, with the northeastern settlement missing about half of its 17,000 people.

"Ten of my relatives are missing. I haven\’t been able to get in contact with them," 54-year-old Minamisanriku resident Tomeko Sato, who lost her house in the disaster, told AFP.

"I was very surprised by the power of the tsunami… next time, I will live on the hill and hope it never happens again."

Millions in Japan have been left without water, electricity, fuel or enough food and hundreds of thousands more are homeless, stoically coping with snow and freezing rain in the northeast.

At the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, live TV footage showed the cloud of white smoke rising high into the clear blue sky.

The containment vessel around the core of reactor number three may have suffered damage, and the "likeliest possibility" for the white cloud was steam escaping from the vessel, chief government spokesman Yukio Edano said.

The number-three reactor was hit by a blast Monday that tore off the outer structure of the reactor building.

Fire crews fought a new blaze early Wednesday at reactor number four, operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said, but it was later extinguished.

Engineers have been desperately battling a feared meltdown at the 40-year-old plant since the earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems and fuel rods began overheating.

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There have now been four explosions and two fires at the complex, with four out of its six reactors in trouble.

France\’s Nuclear Safety Authority said the disaster now equated to a six on the seven-point international scale for nuclear accidents, ranking the crisis second only in gravity to the level-seven Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

But Yukiya Amano, the Japanese chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, insisted Tuesday there was no comparison to the Chernobyl crisis, when radiation spewed across Europe.

The head of the UN\’s atomic watchdog said that unlike Chernobyl, the Fukushima reactors have primary containment vessels and had also shut down automatically when the earthquake hit, so there was no chain reaction going on.

President Barack Obama, who has dispatched a naval flotilla led by a US aircraft carrier to aid in the quake-tsunami rescue operation, said he was "deeply worried" about the potential human cost of the disaster in Japan.


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