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Plutonium found outside complex

Highly toxic plutonium has been detected in the soil outside the damaged Japanese nuclear complex.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) said it was discovered on Monday in five spots around the plant, which has been leaking radiation for nearly two weeks. The company said the amounts were very small and were not a risk to public health.

Experts had expected traces of plutonium to be detected once workers began searching for it this week, since it is present in the nuclear fuel in the troubled complex.

Confusion at the the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant has intensified fears that the nuclear crisis will last weeks, months or years amid alarms over radiation making its way into produce, raw milk and even tap water as far away as Tokyo.

The troubles at the complex have eclipsed the 1979 crisis at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, when a partial meltdown raised fears of widespread radiation release, but is still well short of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which killed at least 31 people with radiation sickness, raised long-term cancer rates, and spewed radiation for hundreds of miles.

While parts of the Japanese plant has been reconnected to the power grid, contaminated water - which has now been found in numerous places around the complex, including the basements of several buildings - must be pumped out before electricity can be restored to the cooling system.

That has left officials struggling with two sometimes-contradictory efforts: pumping in water to keep the fuel rods cool and pumping out - and then safely storing - contaminated water.

The build-up of radioactive water first became a problem last week, when it splashed over the boots of two workers, burning them and prompting a temporary suspension of work.

Then Tepco said on Monday that workers had found more radioactive water in deep trenches used for pipes and electrical wiring outside three units.

The contaminated water has been emitting radiation exposures more than four times the amount that the government considers safe for workers. Exactly where the water is coming from remains unclear, although many suspect it is cooling water that has leaked from one of the disabled reactors.

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