Japanese officials say radiation levels have reached dangerous levels around an earthquake-damaged nuclear plant after a fire broke out in a storage pond holding used nuclear fuel rods.
In a nationally televised statement Tuesday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the radiation level is "very high" and that there is a high risk of more radiation escaping. Anyone living within 30 kilometers of the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant has been urged to remain indoors.
Increased radiation has been detected as far away Tokyo, about 240 kilometers to the south, but officials said levels there are not a threat to public health.
Further north, rescue crews still were struggling through debris-blocked roads to get to hundreds of thousands of people whose towns and villages were leveled by Friday's magnitude-9 earthquake and a subsequent tsunami. Officials said more than 2,400 bodies have now been recovered and many thousands more are missing.
Tuesday's fire was the latest setback for operators of the Fukushima nuclear plant, which suffered a failure of its cooling systems following the earthquake and tsunami. Three other units have already suffered explosions which destroyed the outer buildings housing the reactors, the most recent coming earlier Tuesday.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was informed by Japanese authorities that the fire took place at a storage pond for spent fuel rods at the plant's number 4 unit, and that radioactivity was released directly into the atmosphere at dose rates equivalent to 4,000 chest X-rays every hour.
All non-essential staff were evacuated from the plant before the fire was extinguished shortly before noon local time. Only a skeleton staff was retained to keep pumping seawater into three damaged reactors to try to keep the fuel rods from melting down with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Concern is particularly high regarding the plant's number 2 unit, where officials say coolant boiled away faster than it could be replaced Monday, leaving the fuel rods exposed to the air at least twice. That permits the rods to become extremely hot and begin melting, with the risk of damaging the surrounding containment chamber that keeps deadly radiation from escaping into the environment.
Forecasts called for winds from the northeast Tuesday evening, which would blow any radiation in the direction of Tokyo. The winds were expected to shift later to the west and blow out to sea.
The forecast also called for cold and snow, bringing a fifth night of hardship and misery to hundreds of thousands of people whose homes have been destroyed.
Millions more are in need of of food, water and electricity, while relief efforts are complicated by the widespread destruction of infrastructure. Authorities say they are also desperately short of coffins and body bags for the earthquake victims, many of which are washing up on northeastern beaches.
The government says 15,000 people have already been rescued and 450,000 have been evacuated nationwide. Thousands more are still missing and many may have been washed out to sea by the 10-meter tsunami.