ZAO, Japan —
Emergency workers were forced to temporarily retreat from the plant Wednesday when radiation levels soared, losing precious time. While the levels later dropped, they were still too high to let workers get close.
The storage pools need a constant source of cooling water. Even when removed from reactors, uranium rods are still extremely hot and must be cooled for months, possibly longer, to prevent them from heating up again and emitting radioactivity.
A core team of 180 emergency workers has been at the forefront of the struggle at the plant, rotating in and out of the complex to try to reduce their radiation exposure.
But experts said that anyone working close to the reactors was almost certainly being exposed to radiation levels that could, at least, give them much higher cancer risks.
"I don't know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war," said Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor of the Department of Radiology at University of Tokyo Hospital.
Experts note, though, that radiation levels drop quickly with distance from the complex. While elevated radiation has been detected well outside the evacuation zone, experts say those levels are not dangerous.
U.S. officials were taking no chances, and Prime Minister Naoto Kan and U.S. President Barack Obama spoke about the crisis early Thursday.
In a statement, U.S. Ambassador John V. Roos made his evacuation recommendation "in response to the deteriorating situation" at the Fukushima complex. In Washington, the State Department warned U.S. citizens to consider leaving the country, and offered voluntary evacuation to family members and dependents of U.S. personnel in the cities of Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya.
Chartered planes also would be brought in to help private American citizens who wished to leave, the State Department said.