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Japan may extend mandatory evacuation zone

Japan, under pressure from international groups, said Thursday that it will consider issuing new evacuation orders because potentially dangerous radiation levels are spreading farther from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

At the same time, monitoring concerns arose for workers at the stricken plant when its owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said it does not provide a personal radiation-monitoring device to every worker.

Further signs of spreading contamination surfaced Thursday as Kyodo News reported radioactive iodine 10,000 times above the legal limit in groundwater near the unit 1 reactor at the facility.

Earlier, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iitate, a village 25 miles northwest of the power plant, posted radiation levels "about two times higher" than levels at which it recommends evacuations.

The mandatory evacuation zone extends only 12 miles around the stricken plant, although the government has encouraged people within 18 miles to evacuate voluntarily.

Japan's chief government spokesman, Yukio Edano, said the government will heed the United Nations nuclear agency's advice and step up its monitoring.

Nearly three weeks after a tsunami flooded the reactors' cooling systems, triggering hydrogen explosions and partial nuclear meltdowns, traces of radioactive fallout have been tracked across the globe.

In Japan, the government is churning out spreadsheets on radiation levels in the air, ocean and soil. Numbers are broadcast like weather reports in some cities and have informed bans on exporting vegetables, the evacuation limits and no-fishing zones.

Increasingly, the numbers are also being scrutinized and second-guessed by residents of Japan, who fear the invisible isotopes and are skeptical of official safety assurances. Scores of international advocacy groups and university researchers are descending on the troubled region to monitor the impact of the disaster.

Foreign governments are also getting involved, pledging help to improve Japan's monitoring. The U.S. Navy will send a 140-member radiological control team to aid in the battle against nuclear fallout, Gen. Ryoichi Oriki, Japan Self-Defense Force chief, said at a news conference. The Navy's "radcon" team already had a 21-member unit stationed aboard the USS Ronald Reagan to assess the radioactivity levels on aircraft.

And French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Prime Minister Naoto Kan and pledged more technical assistance. A team of French engineers is working with Tokyo Electric.

At the center of the evacuation zone, working conditions at the nuclear plant have become extremely dangerous, with multiple highly radioactive areas. The critical job of removing contaminated water that has pooled in basements and in underground tunnels is moving slowly, in part because radiation levels are so high.

Nuclear safety experts say radiation-shielding clothing and a dosimeter that can track exposure are a minimum safety standard. But Tokyo Electric told Japanese national broadcasting company NHK on Thursday that its supply of radiation-monitoring equipment is limited.

Despite government regulations that require each worker to wear a dosimeter, a company official said that in some of the plant's less radioactive areas, only group leaders are given one. Some workers have said publicly that they are concerned about whether their exposures are being measured.

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