SENDAI, Japan – Highly contaminated water has escaped from a reactor building at Japan's stricken nuclear plant and may leak into the ocean, the operator said Monday, appealing for overseas help in the crisis.
Radiation fears have disrupted efforts to restart the cooling system of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which was battered by a massive earthquake and tsunami more than two weeks ago that has left over 28,000 people dead or missing.
With Japan struggling to contain its worst ever atomic crisis, France said its nuclear groups Areva and EDF had been asked to help in a situation which Industry Minister Eric Besson described as "extremely critical".
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Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said a large amount of highly radioactive water had leaked from reactor two's turbine building into an underground maintenance tunnel that is now close to overflowing.
"We need to check if the water could flow directly into the sea," a TEPCO official said.
The water is thought to have leaked from the vessel containing the fuel rods -- which are suspected to have temporarily melted -- or from the pipe system.
It was measured at 1,000 millisieverts an hour, a dose that can cause temporary radiation sickness with nausea and vomiting for people who are exposed.
Contamination from the plant northeast of Tokyo has already wafted into the air and been detected in farm produce and tap water, although officials stress there is no imminent health threat.
TEPCO was severely reprimanded by the government Monday, a day after it erroneously said radiation in water at the site had reached 10 million times the normal level.
It later issued a much lower -- but still dangerous -- figure.
"Considering the fact that the monitoring of radioactivity is a major condition to ensure safety, this kind of mistake is absolutely unacceptable," said top government spokesman Yukio Edano.
Adding to questions about the handling of the crisis, TEPCO said its president Masataka Shimizu, 66, took several days off from a joint emergency taskforce with the government due to sickness, but has now returned to work.
The group has also faced criticism over an incident last week in which two plant workers braving hazardous conditions were hospitalised because they stepped in radioactive water without proper boots.
TEPCO shares plunged nearly 18 percent on the Tokyo Stock Exchange on Monday, while the broader market saw a day of subdued trading as the Nikkei 225 index slipped 0.6 percent.
Work to restore power at reactor two has been suspended since Sunday because of the danger posed by the radioactive water leaks.
The immediate focus is on draining the highly radioactive water from the turbine room basements, but without releasing it into the environment.
"We need to make sure this water does not leak into the ground and the sea," said Edano.
"It is very unfortunate that leaked water was directly exposed to melted fuel rods. Due to this we continue to do our utmost to prevent health hazards escalating," he added.
The nuclear crisis remains a distraction from the dire plight of hundreds of thousands made homeless in the quake-tsunami tragedy.
The disaster, Japan's deadliest since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, has left 10,901 dead and 17,649 missing, the National Police Agency said Monday in an updated toll.
Hundreds of aftershocks since the March 11 disaster have rattled buildings and further strained nerves -- including a powerful 6.1-magnitude quake that sparked a tsunami advisory in worst-hit Miyagi prefecture early Monday.
In areas near the nuclear plant -- some of them virtual ghost towns with people holed up in their homes -- rubble remained uncleared and tsunami victims have received little aid because supplies have ground to a halt.
Environmental activist group Greenpeace said it had confirmed radiation levels of up to 10 microsieverts per hour in one village 40 kilometres northwest of the plant, outside the official 30-kilometre evacuation area.
"It is clearly not safe for people to remain in Iitate, especially children and pregnant women, when it could mean receiving the maximum allowed annual dose of radiation in only a few days," it said.
Food safety fears have prompted Tokyo as well as the United States, European Union, China and a host of other nations to halt shipments of certain farm produce from affected regions of Japan.
Thailand said Monday that it had seized a batch of sweet potato from Japan due to abnormally high -- but not unsafe -- levels of radiation.