WRAPUP 7-Soaring radioactivity deals blow to Japan’s plant rescue

* Radioactivity soars in reactor 2, workers evacuated

* Crisis far from end, says U.N. nuclear chief

* Survey shows Japanese back tax hike for recovery

(Updates throughout)

By Shinichi Saoshiro and Taiga Uranaka

TOKYO, March 27 (Reuters) – Workers were pulled back from a
reactor building at Japan’s earthquake-wrecked nuclear plant on
Sunday after potentially lethal levels of radiation were
detected in water there, a major setback for the dash to avert a
catastrophic meltdown.

The operator of the facility said radiation in the water of
the No. 2 reactor was measured at more than 1,000 millisieverts
an hour, the highest reading so far in a crisis triggered by a
massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

That compares with a national safety standard of 250
millisieverts over a year. The U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency says a single dose of 1,000 millisieverts is enough to
cause haemorrhaging.

The Japanese government said that, overall, the situation
was unchanged at the plant — which lies 240 km (150 miles)
north of Tokyo even if there were hitches from time to time.

“We did expect to run into unforeseen difficulties, and
this accumulation of high radioactivity water is one such
example,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news
briefing.

Yukiya Amano, the director-general of the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), cautioned that the nuclear
emergency could go on for weeks, if not months more. “This is a
very serious accident by all standards,” he told the New York
Times. “And it is not yet over.”

Tokyo Electric Power Co engineers have been working
around the clock to stabilise the situation at the Fukushima
Daiichi plant since the earthquake and tsunami knocked out the
back-up power system needed to cool the reactors.

The operation has had to be suspended several times due to
explosions and spiking radiation levels inside the reactors, in
a crisis that has become the worst nuclear emergency since
Chernobyl a quarter-century ago.

On Thursday, three workers were taken to hospital from
reactor No. 3 after stepping in water with radiation levels
10,000 times higher than usually found in a reactor.

LEVELS 10 MILLION TIMES ABOVE NORMAL

The latest radiation scare was confined to inside the
reactor. Radiation levels in the air beyond the evacuation zone
around the plant and in Tokyo have been in normal ranges.

Officials said the water in No. 2 contained 10 million times
the amount of radioactive iodine than is normal in the reactor,
but noted the substance had a half-life of less than an hour,
meaning it would disappear within a day.

The engineers evacuated from the reactor’s turbine housing
unit had been trying to pump radioactive water out of the power
station after it was found in buildings housing three of the six
reactors.

Radiation levels in the sea off the plant rose on Sunday to
1,850 times normal just over two weeks after the disaster
struck, from 1,250 on Saturday, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial
Safety Agency said.

“Ocean currents will disperse radiation particles and so it
will be very diluted by the time it gets consumed by fish and
seaweed,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a senior agency official.

In downtown Tokyo, a Reuters reading on Sunday afternoon
showed ambient radiation of 0.16 microsieverts per hour, below
the global average of naturally occurring background radiation
of 0.17-0.39 microsieverts per hour, a range given by the World
Nuclear Association.

Several countries have banned produce and milk from Japan’s
nuclear crisis zone and are monitoring Japanese seafood over
fears of radioactive contamination.

The accident has also triggered concern around the globe
about the safety of nuclear power generation. U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it was time to reassess the
international atomic safety regime.

The crisis also looks set to claim its first, and unlikely,
political casualty. In far away Germany, Chancellor Angela
Merkel’s party faces a defeat in a key state on Sunday, largely
because of her policy U-turns on nuclear power.

OVERSHADOWING RELIEF EFFORT

The drama at the plant has overshadowed a relief and
recovery effort from the magnitude 9.0 quake and the huge
tsunami it triggered that left more than 27,100 people dead or
missing in northeast Japan.

The first opinion poll to be taken since the disaster struck
showed that approval ratings for Japanese Prime Minister Naoto
Kan had edged higher, to 28.3 percent, but more than half
disapproved of how the nuclear crisis had been
handled.

Prior to the earthquake, Kan’s approval rating had sunk to
around 20 percent, opposition parties were blocking budget bills
to force a snap election that his party was at risk of losing,
and critics inside his own camp were pressing him to quit.

The survey published by Kyodo news agency on Sunday showed
that nearly two-thirds of respondents were in favour of a tax
increase to help fund recovery in the earthquake-torn northeast.

The government estimated last week the material damage from
the catastrophe could top $300 billion, making it the world’s
costliest natural disaster.

In addition, power cuts have disrupted production while the
drawn-out battle to prevent a meltdown at the 40-year-old plant
has hurt consumer confidence and spread contamination fears well
beyond Japan.

Amano, a former Japanese diplomat who made a trip to Japan
after the quake, said authorities were still unsure about
whether the plant’s reactor cores and spent fuel were covered
with the water needed to cool them.

He said he saw a few “positive signs” with the restoration
of some electric power to the plant, but added: “More efforts
should be done to put an end to the accident.”

A Tokyo Electric official told a news conference on Saturday
that experts were mulling where to put the contaminated water
that plant workers have been trying to pump out of the reactors.

They also are not sure where the radiation is leaking from
— whether it’s from the spent-fuel rod pools or elsewhere in
the reactors.

Two of the six reactors are now seen as safe but the other
four are volatile, occasionally emitting steam and smoke.

At Chernobyl in Ukraine, the worst nuclear accident in the
world, it took weeks to “stabilise” what remained of the reactor
that exploded and months to clean up radioactive materials and
cover the site with a concrete and steel sarcophagus.

(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Chizu Nomiyama,
Shinichi Saoshiro and Phil Smith in Tokyo, Jon Herskovitz in
Kamaishi; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

WRAPUP 7-Soaring radioactivity deals blow to Japan’s plant rescue