Workers flee Fukushima after radiation readings soar

Emergency workers fled from one of Fukushima's stricken nuclear reactors yesterday, after contaminated water in the cooling system was apparently found to be 10 million times more radioactive than normal, only for officials to later say that the reading might have been inaccurate.

The latest confusion in the battle to bring Japan's nuclear crisis under control came as villagers near the plant complained that they were being kept in the dark over radiation risks.

The technician who took the reading at reactor No 2 yesterday was so alarmed by the numbers that the team fled the building before taking a second measurement. And later, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co, the operator of the Fukushima plant, said: "There is a suspicion that the reading ... is too high, so we are redoing our tests... We are very sorry for the inconvenience."

Highly radioactive pools of water have formed inside all four of the damaged reactors, officials said. After previously downplaying fears of a serious breach in any of the reactors, Yukio Edano, the cabinet secretary and the face of the government throughout the crisis, said it "almost certainly" had happened.

"We have somewhat prevented the situation from turning worse," he said. "But the prospects are not improving in a straight line and we've expected twists and turns."

The discovery of radioactive seawater showing traces 1,250 times above normal levels a kilometre off-shore has added to fears of a widening crisis after warnings over tap water in Tokyo and bans on foodstuffs from the Fukushima area.

The mayor of Iitate village told The Independent yesterday that the government had not told him that, thanks to strong winds, his area had been among the worst hit since the disaster began.

The government had maps and data from its own pollution modelling system, Speedi, which showed that high levels of airborne pollution had been reaching Iitate since 12 March, despite the village being 40km from the plant. "Why didn't they tell us?" the mayor, Norio Kanno, asked. "I had to find out from the newspapers."

Soil samples taken from the farming community registered 1.17 million becquerels. No legal limit exists for soil samples, but one scientist contacted by The Independent said the number was "dangerously high". Almost half of Iitate's 7,000 villagers have fled the area but the rest remain, waiting for official confirmation of any health risk.

The mayor complained that the zones had been set up in circles while the airborne pollution was moving in different shapes, driven by the wind. "It's like the weather, I am being told. And we need a forecast," said Mr Norro.