Setbacks are mounting in Japan's nuclear crisis, with nearby sea water showing the highest radiation levels yet and the president of the wrecked plant being taken to hospital with stress.
Nearly three weeks after the tsunami engulfed the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) is still struggling to bring it under control. Radiation leaking from the plant has seeped into soil and sea water and made its way into produce, raw milk and even tap water as far away as Tokyo, 140 miles to the south.
The stress of reining in Japan's worst crisis since the Second World War has taken its toll on Tepco President Masataka Shimizu, who was sent to hospital late on Tuesday. Mr Shimizu, 66, has not been seen in public since a March 13 news conference in Tokyo, raising speculation that he has suffered a breakdown.
A company spokesman said that Mr Shimizu was admitted to hospital after suffering dizziness and high blood pressure.
The leadership vacuum follows growing criticism of Tepco for its failure to halt the radiation leaks. Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata announced at a news conference that he would step in and apologised for the delay. "We must do everything we can to end this situation as soon as possible for the sake of everyone who has been affected," said Yuhei Sato, governor of Fukushima prefecture. "I am extremely disappointed and saddened by the suggestion that this might drag out longer."
Tepco acknowledged publicly for the first time that at least four of the plant's six reactors will have to be decommissioned once the crisis subsides, citing the corrosive sea water used to cool reactors and spent fuel pools. Japan's government has been saying since March 20 that the entire plant must be scrapped.
Nuclear safety officials said sea water 300 yards outside the plant contained 3,355 times the legal limit for the amount of radioactive iodine - the highest rate yet and a sign that more contaminated water has made its way into the ocean.
The amount of iodine-131 found south of the plant does not pose an immediate threat to human health but is a "concern", said the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Radioactive iodine is short-lived, with a half-life of just eight days, and is expected to dissipate quickly in the ocean.
Highly toxic plutonium has been detected in the soil outside the plant, Tepco said. Safety officials said the amounts did not pose a risk to humans, but the finding supports suspicions that dangerously radioactive water is leaking from damaged nuclear fuel rods. There have been no reports of plutonium being found in sea water.
Meanwhile,, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration have said very low levels of radiation have turned up in a sample of milk from Washington state. The FDA said such findings are to be expected in the coming days because of the nuclear crisis in Japan, and that the levels are expected to drop relatively quickly.