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Nuclear plant crisis eases slightly

Two units at Japan's stricken nuclear plant have been safely cooled down, though pressure unexpectedly rose in a third unit's reactor as scientists continued to wage a battle to get a handle on the crisis and Britons continued to flee from affected areas.

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 north-east Japan on March 11.

Meanwhile, Britons continued to leave the affected regions. Free buses carried UK nationals from Sendai to Tokyo, while British people wanting to leave the country were also assisted by the Foreign Office, which block-booked seats on commercial flights to Hong Kong.

As the official death toll rose to 8,600 people dead and 12,800 listed as missing, there was news of a rare rescue amid the despair.

A teenage boy's cries for help led police to rescue him and his 80-year-old grandmother from their wrecked house nine days after earthquake struck.

Beyond the disaster area, uncertainty grew over the safety of food and water. The government halted shipments of spinach from one area and raw milk from another near the nuclear plant after tests found iodine exceeded safety limits.

But the contamination spread to spinach in three other prefectures and to more vegetables - canola and chrysanthemum greens. Tokyo's tap water, where iodine was found on Friday, now has cesium. Rain and dust are tainted too.

In all cases, the government said the radiation levels were too small to pose an immediate risk to health.

All six of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex's reactor units experienced trouble on Sunday after the disasters knocked out cooling systems.

In a small advance, the plant's operator declared Units 5 and 6 - the least troublesome - under control after their nuclear fuel storage pools cooled to safe levels. Progress was made to reconnect two other units to the electric grid and in pumping seawater to cool another reactor and replenish it and a sixth reactor's storage pools.

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