Spike in radiation forces Japan to suspend efforts to prevent nuclear meltdown

High radiation levels halted crucial efforts to cool damaged nuclear reactors at risk of complete meltdown in Japan.

This satellite photo taken Wednesday March 16 shows the damage after an earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant complex. The image confirms damage to the Units 1, 3, and 4 reactor buildings. Steam can be seen venting from the unit 2 reactor building, as well as from the Unit 3 reactor building. Additional damage can be seen to several other buildings approximately 350 meters north of the Unit 2 reactor building. Reactor units five and six are seen at lower right.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Japan suspended efforts Wednesday to prevent damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant from melting down when a surge in radiation made it too dangerous for workers to operate.

"The workers cannot carry out even minimal work at the plant now," said chief government spokesman Yuko Edano, referring to workers who had been dousing the reactors with seawater in a frantic effort to cool down their rising temperatures. "Because of the radiation risk, we are on standby."

Helicopters from Japan's Self Defense Forces were preparing to dump water on the plant's No.3 and No. 4 reactors, but the government canceled the plan after a surveillance helicopter measured excessive radiation levels above the plant, Mr. Edano said.

Later, however, radiation levels dipped and some workers were able to resume cooling efforts.

Today's suspension of efforts comes one day after Japanese officials told the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that radioactivity was "being released directly into the atmosphere" after a fire broke out in a storage pond for spent fuel at the plant's No. 4 reactor.

Japan's nuclear crisis: A timeline of key events

The IAEA said Wednesday that all the fuel from the No. 4 reactor was transferred last November to the storage pond where Tuesday's fire broke out. The transfer was part of routine maintenance, but the fire there caused the release of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

Until Tuesday, Japanese officials had maintained that radiation levels near the plant were not harmful to humans.

But Tuesday's fire caused them to revise that statement and order 140,000 people living near nuclear power plants damaged to stay indoors and seal their doors and windows.

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