- Associated Press - Sunday, March 20, 2011

FUKUSHIMA, Japan (AP) — An unexpected rise in pressure inside a troubled reactor set back efforts to bring Japan‘s overheating, leaking nuclear complex under control Sunday as concerns grew that as-yet minor contamination of food and water is spreading.

The pressure increase meant plant operators may need to deliberately release radioactive steam, prolonging a nuclear crisis that has consumed government attention even as it responded to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that savaged northeast Japan on March 11.

In a rare rescue after so many days, a teenage boy’s cries for help led police to rescue him and an 80-year-old woman at a wrecked house.

Beyond the disaster area, an already shaken public grew uneasy with official reports that traces of radiation first detected in spinach and milk from farms near the nuclear plant are turning up farther away in tap water, rain and even dust. In all cases, the government said the radiation levels were too small to pose an immediate risk to health. Still, Taiwan seized a batch of fava beans from Japan found with faint — and legal — amounts of iodine and cesium.

“I’m worried, really worried,” said Mayumi Mizutani, a 58-year-old Tokyo resident shopping for bottled water at a supermarket to give her visiting 2-year-old grandchild. “We’re afraid because it’s possible our grandchild could get cancer.” Forecasts for rain, she said, were an added worry.

All six of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex’s reactor units saw trouble after the disasters knocked out cooling systems. But officials reported headway this weekend in reconnecting two units to the electric grid and in pumping seawater to cool reactors and replenish bubbling or depleted pools for spent nuclear fuel.

Temperatures in storage pools for Units 5 and 6 continued their several days of decline Sunday to a safe, cool level, the nuclear safety agency said.

But the buildup in pressure inside the vessel holding Unit 3’s reactor renewed the danger, forcing officials to consider venting. The tactic produced explosions during the early days of the crisis.

“Even if certain things go smoothly, there would be twists and turns,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters. “At the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough.”

Nuclear safety officials said one of the options could release a cloud dense with iodine as well as the radioactive elements krypton and xenon.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., temporarily suspended the plans Sunday after it said the pressure inside the reactor stopped climbing, though at a high level.

“It has stabilized,” Tokyo Electric manager Hikaru Kuroda told reporters.

Mr. Kuroda, who said temperatures inside the reactor reached 572 degrees Fahrenheit, said the option to release the highly radioactive gas inside is still under consideration if pressure rises.

Growing concerns about radiation add to the overwhelming chain of disasters with which Japan has struggled since the 9.0-magnitude quake. A tsunami spawned by the earthquake ravaged the northeastern coast, killing more than 8,100 people, leaving 12,000 people missing and displacing another 452,000, who are living in shelters.

Fuel, food and water remain scarce. The government in recent days acknowledged being caught ill-prepared by an enormous disaster that the prime minister has called the worst crisis since World War II.

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