Members of the Japan Ground and Maritime Self-Defense Force unload a drum of fuel from a ship March 17, 2011, while aiding in recovery efforts following a massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country. UPI/Keizo Mori | License Photo
TOKYO, March 25 (UPI) -- Japanese officials Friday announced a "voluntary" evacuation of people living within 19 miles of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
A mandatory evacuation was already in place for those within 12 miles while officials suggested those within 19 miles remain inside. The government will now help everyone in the 12-to-19-mile zone leave, The New York Times reported.
"The situation still requires caution," Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters Friday, saying the government was following the advice of the Nuclear Safety Commission. "Our measures are aimed at preventing the circumstances from getting worse."
The U.S. government has suggested its nationals stay at least 50 miles away from the plant.
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said Friday the radiation may be coming from the reactor core. The agency said nothing indicates the No. 3 reactor vessel was cracked or damaged, Kyodo News reported.
Highly radioactive water was found at the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors' turbine buildings, one day after three workers were exposed to water containing radioactive materials 10,000 times the normal level at the turbine building connected to the No. 3 reactor facility, officials said.
The latest development in Japan's worst nuclear crisis raised the possibility of more workers being exposed to radioactive materials, hindering efforts to restore the plant's damaged cooling functions, key to bringing the crisis under control, Kyodo said.
Nuclear agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said the high-level radiation is suspected to have come from the reactor, where overheated fuel rods are believed to have melted partially.
He said further investigation was needed to determine how the radioactive water reached the underground site where the three workers were exposed Thursday.
Kyodo said two of them were hospitalized for possible burns caused by skin-damaging beta rays because they were not wearing boots, thus leaving their feet soaking in the water. CNN reported the third worker, who had his boots on, was not hospitalized.
Despite the partial halt of restoration work because of the workers' exposure to radiation, Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant's operator, began injecting fresh water into the No. 1 reactor core Friday, while it prepared to introduce fresh water into all the troubled reactor cores and spent-fuel pools in place of seawater currently used.
Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said U.S. forces in Japan will provide some fresh water to be sprayed at the fuel pools to ensure an ample water supply is available.
Following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the cooling functions failed at the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 reactors and their reactor cores partially melted. The cooling functions of the pools storing spent nuclear fuel at the three units and the No. 4 unit also were lost.
The plant's nuclear crisis, Japan's worst since World War II, set off a host of other problems, from contaminated vegetables and milk produced in the worst-hit northeast regions to radiation seepage into seawater and spreading concerns about tap water radiation pollution in the Tokyo area, 150 miles away.