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Japan may entomb N-plant as crisis continues

Japan will consider entombing its crippled nuclear plant in concrete as workers grapple to reduce radiation and contain the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.

Four out of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were damaged beyond repair in Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said.

About 600 workers, firefighters and soldiers have averted the threat of a total meltdown by injecting water into damaged reactors for the past two weeks. Engineers have connected the complex's six units with the power grid, and two are using temporary motor-driven pumps.

While technicians are trying to repair monitoring and cooling systems, the work has been hampered by discoveries of hazardous radioactive water.

The government hasn't ruled out pouring concrete over the whole facility as one way to shutting it down, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Wednesday.

Dumping concrete on the plant would serve a second purpose: It would trap contaminated water, said Tony Roulstone, an atomic engineer at the University of Cambridge in England.

"They need to immobilize this water, and they need something to soak it up," he said by phone Wednesday. "You don't want to create another hazard, but you need to get it away from the reactors."

In other developments:

*Katsumata said he is taking over daily operations at Tokyo Electric, which owns the crippled plant, because company President Masataka Shimizu has been hospitalized for an illness brought on by stress.

*Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency urged the Japanese government to consider widening the evacuation zone around the facility. Recent radiation readings outside the exclusion zone show radiation substantially higher than levels at which the U.N. nuclear agency would recommend evacuations.

Elena Buglova, an IAEA official, said radiation at the village of Iitate, about 25 miles from the Fukushima complex, "was about two times higher" than levels at which the agency recommends evacuations.

Japanese officials have told residents to evacuate within a 12-mile zone and to stay indoors within 18 miles of the damaged complex, but U.S. officials have recommended citizens stay at least 50 miles away.

*In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration announced finding minuscule amounts of radioactive iodine-131 -- likely from Fukushima -- in milk from Washington State. The amount detected was "more than 5,000 times lower" than the amount that would trigger FDA restrictions, the agency said.

*Ren Cheng, a spokesman for Taiwan's Mitsui Food & Beverage Enterprise Group that operates several upscale Japanese restaurants in Taipei, said his company has seen a 50 percent drop in revenue since the crisis began.

"We are not importing any food products from Japan. All the Japanese ingredients we are using were all procured before the quake," he said. "We have put up signs in our restaurants to reassure costumers about the safety of our food."

Domestic consumption, however, is far more important to Japan, which imports far more seafood than it exports. According to the fisheries agency, the domestic catch typically totals around 5.5 million tons. Less than a million of that gets exported, while another nearly 3 million tons are imported. In stores near Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market, fresh fish was selling poorly.

Instead, customers "are stockpiling" frozen fish, in the hopes it was caught before radiation began to climb, said Hideo Otsubo, who works at a seafood company near the market.

*Officials said measurements of radioactive iodine in the sea outside the Daiichi plant had spiked a day earlier, amplifying fears about an uncontrolled leak of highly contaminated water from at least one reactor.

Levels of iodine-131 were 3,355 times the legal safety limit, up from the previous high of 1,850 times the limit that was recorded Sunday, officials said. The water was sampled 1,000 feet from a wastewater outlet.

"Experts are trying to analyze the situation and looking at all possibilities," Edano, the chief Cabinet secretary, told reporters. "We are considering the worst-case scenario. If the radiation goes up and it affects health of people in the area, we will advise people immediately."

*Japan's respected Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited disaster evacuees at a center in Tokyo on Wednesday. The visit was marked by a formality that is typical of interactions with the royal couple, but survivors said they were encouraged.

*The number of dead and missing from the earthquake and tsunami had reached 27,652 as of Wednesday, Japan's National Police Agency said.

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