TOKYO — Radiation levels recorded at a village about 25 miles from a stricken nuclear power plant are over recommended levels, a senior official of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Wednesday.
The official said the IAEA has told Japan of the finding.
Iitate village lies northwest of the Fukushima Dai-ichi facility, beyond the 19-mile zone in which Japan has urged people to evacuate.
"The first assessment indicates that one of the IAEA operational criteria for evacuation is exceeded in Iitate village," IAEA official Denis Flory told a news conference.
Japan set up a 12.5-mile evacuation zone around the plant and maintained that people living further away were safe for about two weeks. However, as the crisis worsened, officials started advising people living up to 19 miles away to consider leaving voluntarily.
Flory also said that Singapore had told the U.N. nuclear watchdog that some cabbages imported from Japan had radiation levels up to nine times the levels recommended for international trade.
Radiation has seeped into the soil and seawater near the stricken nuclear facility and made its way into produce, raw milk and even tap water as far as Tokyo, 140 miles to the south.
The IAEA has called a high-level meeting in Vienna in June to address nuclear safety in the wake of the crisis, diplomats said Wednesday.
IAEA chief Yukiya Amano has said he wants IAEA member states to assess the response to Japan's nuclear emergency and discuss ways to prevent such a disaster happening again.
"The situation (at the plant) continues to be very serious and the efforts to overcome this crisis are increasing," Amano said Wednesday.
The IAEA concern about the extent of radiation came as setbacks to efforts to end the crisis mounted Wednesday:
- On Wednesday, nuclear safety officials said seawater 300 yards outside the plant contained 3,355 times the legal limit for the amount of radioactive iodine — the highest rate yet and a sign that more contaminated water was making its way into the ocean. Two days ago it was 1,800 times higher, NBC News reported. The amount of iodine-131 found south of the plant does not pose an immediate threat to human health but was a "concern," said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency official. Radioactive iodine is short-lived, with a half-life of just eight days.
- The stress of reining in Japan's worst crisis since World War II appeared to have taken its toll on Masataka Shimizu, president of power company TEPCO, who went to a hospital late Tuesday. Shimizu, 66, has not been seen in public since a March 13 news conference in Tokyo. Spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said Wednesday that Shimizu had been admitted to a Tokyo hospital late Tuesday after suffering dizziness and high blood pressure.
- TEPCO said it was inevitable that it would have to scrap four of the six reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Independent analysts have been saying that.
- Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news briefing there appeared to be no end in sight to the crisis. "We are not in a situation where we can say we will have this under control by a certain period," he said.
Edano's gloomy assessment caused dismay in the area around the plant.
"We must do everything we can to end this situation as soon as possible for the sake of everyone who has been affected," said Yuhei Sato, governor of Fukushima prefecture. "I am extremely disappointed and saddened by the suggestion that this might drag out longer."
Although experts have said since the early days of the crisis that the nuclear complex will need to be scrapped because workers have sprayed it with corrosive seawater to keep fuel rods cool, TEPCO acknowledged publicly for the first time Wednesday that at least four of the plant's six reactors will have to be decommissioned.
"After pouring seawater on them ... I believe we cannot use them anymore," TEPCO's chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said.
Glue and cloth tents
In an effort to reduce the spread of radioactive particles, TEPCO plans to spray resin on the ground around the plant. The company will test the method Thursday in one section of the plant before using it elsewhere, Nishiyama, the safety official, said.
"The idea is to glue them to the ground," he said. But it would be too sticky to use inside buildings or on sensitive equipment.
The government also is considering covering some reactors with cloth tenting, TEPCO said. If successful, that could allow workers to spend longer periods of time in other areas of the plant.
Meanwhile, white smoke was reported coming from another plant, Fukushima Daini, about 10 miles from the troubled one. The smoke quickly dissipated and no radiation was released; officials were looking into its cause.
Japan's trade ministry said Wednesday that nuclear plants would be required by mid-April to deploy back-up mobile power generators and fire trucks able to pump water, while beefing up training programs and manuals.
It also said it would review energy policies to promote renewable sources and ease power shortages. However, the ministry reiterated that nuclear power was expected to retain an important role.
"As Prime Minister (Naoto) Kan has said in parliamentary debates, I think we should also put emphasis on renewable energy sources, such as solar power," Trade Minister Banri Kaieda told a news conference. "We should discuss our energy policy as a whole."
Nearly 90 percent of Japan's 54 reactors have yet to comply with upgraded 2006 safety guidelines for protection from a massive tsunami.
Kaieda said nuclear power, which accounts for 30 percent of Japan's electricity output, was an important part of its energy portfolio, and running reactors in the undamaged west was essential to secure power for overall industrial output.
Emperor consoles evacuees
As officials seek to bring an end to the nuclear crisis, hundreds of thousands in the northeast are still trying to put their lives back together following the earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 11,000 people and left over 16,000 missing.
The government said damage is expected to cost $310 billion, making it the most costly natural disaster on record.
In the town of Rikuzentakata, one 24-year-old said she's been searching every day for a missing friend but will have to return to her job at a nursing home because she has run out of cash.
Life is far from back to normal, she said.
"Our family posted a sign in our house: Stay positive," Eri Ishikawa said, but admitted this was a struggle.
The country's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko reached out to some of the thousands displaced, spending about an hour consoling a group of evacuees at a Tokyo center.
"I couldn't talk with them very well because I was nervous, but I felt that they were really concerned about us," said Kenji Ukito, an evacuee from a region near the plant. "I was very grateful."
The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this story.