HIGHLY radioactive water, endangering workers and hindering repair efforts at the Fukushima nuclear plant, was the result of a “partial meltdown” of the fuel rods in the plant’s No 2 reactor, Japan’s chief government spokesman admitted yesterday.

Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said the water was believed to have temporarily come into contact with the partially melted fuel rods inside the reactor.

After another day of unnerving aftershocks and fresh problems at the Fukushima plant, Mr Edano attacked the Tokyo Electric Power Company for its continued bungled handling of the crisis.

In TEPCO’s latest blunder, the company announced on Sunday that water inside the turbine building of the No 2 reactor was 10 million times more radioactive than normal, only to have to correct the reading to 100,000 times more radioactive.

Mr Edano condemned the company, which failed to warn three workers about highly radioactive water before they stepped in it, for releasing the erroneous radiation data.

“Considering the fact that the monitoring of radioactivity is a major condition to ensure safety, this kind of mistake is absolutely unacceptable,” he said.

The frayed nerves of residents on the coast of northern Honshu were strained again yesterday when a 6.5-magnitude quake struck 80km east of the Oshika Peninsula in Miyagi prefecture.

The quake – one of many aftershocks buffeting the region every day since the magnitude-9 blockbuster – triggered a warning of a 50cm tsunami that was later withdrawn.

Concerns over ocean contamination grew yesterday with revelations that water contaminated with radioactive iodine might be spreading. Samples showed concentrations 1150 times higher than normal taken from the north end of the plant, next to the largely undamaged reactors five and six.

Work at the Fukushima plant yesterday was focused on removing the pools of radioactive water from reactors two and three, although the effort was being hampered by high radioactivity and problems with storing the water.

The radiation level inside buildings around reactor two soared to more than 1000 millisieverts per hour on Sunday, forcing the evacuation of workers trying to restore its cooling systems.

Workers had been hoping to pump the water into huge tanks inside the reactor that are designed to hold condensed water, but they turned out to be full.

Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said plans to use conventional power to restart the cooling systems had been thwarted by the need to lay cables through turbine buildings flooded with the contaminated water.

“The problem is that right now nobody can reach the turbine houses where key electrical work must be done,” NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said.

“There is a possibility we may have to give up on that plan.”

More than 600 people are working inside the plant in short shifts to minimise their exposure to radioactivity.

The workers who were hospitalised last week after stepping in the radioactive pool were released from hospital yesterday.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose future as a leader and performance during the crisis has been the subject of considerable debate, plans to make his first visit to the tsunami-ravaged coast on Saturday.

He plans to visit the town of Rikuzentakata, where thousands of people are believed to have died or lost their homes.

A poll released yesterday showed 58 per cent of people backed the government’s handling of the post-quake relief effort, while almost exactly the same proportion criticised its handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

The official death toll from the quake and tsunami stands at 10,872, although is expected to climb significantly. More than 16,000 people are still missing.

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