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Since the quake and wave hit, authorities have been struggling to avert an environmental catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex, 140 miles (220 kilometers) north of Tokyo. The tsunami knocked out the backup diesel generators needed to keep nuclear fuel cool at the plant’s six reactors, setting off the atomic crisis.

In the city of Fukushima, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) inland from the nuclear complex, hundreds of harried government workers, police officers and others struggled to stay on top of the situation in a makeshift command center.

An entire floor of one of the prefecture’s office buildings had been taken over by people tracking evacuations, power needs, death tolls and food supplies.

In one room, uniformed soldiers evaluated radiation readings on maps posted across a wall. In another, senior officials were in meetings throughout the day, while nuclear power industry representatives held impromptu briefings before rows of media cameras.

Wednesday’s radiation spike was believed to have come from Unit 3, where workers are struggling with a fuel storage pond believed to be leaking radiation, as well as possible damage to the containment vessel — the thick concrete armor built around the reactor — that would allow radiation to escape.

“The workers cannot carry out even minimal work at the plant now,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Wednesday morning at briefing aired on television, as smoke billowed above the complex. “Because of the radiation risk we are on standby.”

With no workers on site, efforts to cool the reactors likely ceased altogether, said Michael Friedlander, a former nuclear power plant operator who worked at a General Electric boiling water reactor in the United States similar to the stricken ones in Japan.

“They’re in right now is what’s called a feed-and-bleed mode. In order to keep the core covered and keep the reactor cool they have to feed in water,” said Friedlander, who is currently based in Hong Kong. “It’s something that they physically have to be present to do.”

Elevated levels of radiation were detected well outside the 20-mile (30-kilometer) emergency area around the plants. In Ibaraki prefecture, just south of Fukushima, officials said radiation levels were about 300 times normal levels by late morning. It would take three years of constant exposure to these higher levels to raise a person’s risk of cancer.

A little radiation was also detected in Tokyo, triggering panic buying of food and water.

Given the reported radiation levels, John Price, an Australian-based nuclear safety expert, said he saw few health risks for the general public so far. He was concerned for the workers, who he said were almost certainly working in full body suits and breathing through respirators. The workers at the forefront of the fight — a core team of about 180 — had been regularly rotated in and out of the danger zone to minimize their radiation exposure.

Price said he was surprised by how little information the Japanese were sharing.

“We don’t know even the fundamentals of what’s happening, what’s wrong, what isn’t working. We’re all guessing,” he said. “I would have thought they would put on a panel of experts every two hours.”

Edano said the government expects to ask the U.S. military for help, though he did not elaborate. He said the government is still considering whether to accept offers of help from other countries.

There are six reactors at the plant. Units 1, 2 and 3, which were operating last week, shut down automatically when the quake hit. Since then, all three have been rocked by explosions. Compounding the problems, on Tuesday a fire broke out in Unit 4’s fuel storage pond, an area where used nuclear fuel is kept cool, causing radioactivity to be released into the atmosphere.

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