Image: Naoto Kan
Eugene Hoshiko  /  AP
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, center, walks past the rubble in front of municipal building in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, on Saturday.
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updated 4/2/2011 2:45:26 PM ET 2011-04-02T18:45:26

As Japan's prime minister visited tsunami-ravaged coastal areas for the first time Saturday, frustrated evacuees complained that the government has been too focused on the nuclear crisis that followed the massive wave.

Nearly every day some new problem at the stricken Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant commands officials' attention — Saturday it was a newly discovered crack in a maintenance pit that is leaking highly radioactive water into the sea.

"The government has been too focused on the Fukushima power plant rather than the tsunami victims. Both deserve attention," said 35-year-old Megumi Shimanuki, who was visiting her family at a community center converted into a shelter in hard-hit Natori, about 100 miles from Rikuzentakata, where Prime Minister Naoto Kan stopped Saturday. More than 165,000 people are still living in shelters.

Kan's government has been frantically working with Tokyo Electric Power Co. to solve the crisis at the nuclear complex, which has been spewing radioactivity since cooling systems were disabled by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that preceded the tsunami on March 11.

On Saturday, nuclear safety officials announced that they had found water with levels of radioactive iodine far above the legal limit leaking from an 8-inch crack in the maintenance pit into the Pacific Ocean.

They said the crack was likely caused by the quake and may be the source of radioactive iodine that started showing up in the ocean more than a week ago.

New danger?
People living within 12 miles of the plant have been evacuated and the radioactive water will quickly dissipate in the sea, but it was unclear if the leak posed any new danger to workers. People have been uneasy about seafood from the area despite official reassurances that the risk of contamination is low.

The cracked pit houses cables for one of the six nuclear reactors, and the concentration of radioactive iodine was the same as in a puddle of contaminated water found outside the reactor earlier in the week. Because of that, officials believe the contaminated water is coming from the same place, though they are not sure where.

Quake risk at nuclear plants

A nuclear plant worker who fell into the ocean Friday while trying to board a barge carrying water to help cool the plant did not show any immediate signs of being exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, nuclear safety officials said Saturday, but they were waiting for test results to be sure.

Radiation worries have compounded the misery for people trying to recover from the tsunami. Nearly 25,000 are feared dead — 11,800 confirmed — and in addition to those living in shelters, tens of thousands more still do not have electricity or running water.

Kan's visit Saturday to Rikuzentakata was his first to survey damage in one of the dozens of villages, towns and cities slammed by the tsunami.

"The government fully supports you until the end," Kan told 250 people at an elementary school serving as an evacuation center. He earlier met with the mayor, whose 38-year-old wife was swept away.

He bowed his head for a moment of silence in front of the town hall, one of the few buildings still standing, though its windows are blown out and metal and debris sit tangled out front.

Kan also stopped at the sports complex being used as a base camp for nuclear plant workers, who have been hailed as heroes for laboring in dangerous conditions. He had visited the nuclear crisis zone once before, soon after the quake.

Workers have been reluctant to talk to the media about what they are experiencing, but one who spent several days at the plant described difficult conditions in an anonymous interview published Saturday in the national Mainichi newspaper.

Slideshow: Devastation in Japan after quake (on this page)

When he was called in mid-March to help restore power at the plant, he said he did not tell his family because he did not want them to worry. But he did tell a friend to notify his parents if he did not return in two weeks.

"I feel very strongly that there is nobody but us to do this job, and we cannot go home until we finish the work," he said.

Early on, the company ran out of full radiation suits, forcing workers to create improvised versions of items such as nylon booties they were supposed to pull over their shoes.

"But we only put something like plastic garbage bags you can buy at a convenience store and sealed them with masking tape," he said.

Debris, dead fish strewn across area
He said the tsunami littered the area around the plant with dead fish and sharks, and the quake opened holes in the ground that tripped up some workers who could not see through large gas masks. They had to yell at one another to be heard through the masks.

"It's hard to move while wearing a gas mask," he said. "While working, the gas mask came off several times. Maybe I must have inhaled much radiation."

Video: U.S. joins Japan in final sweep for the missing

Radiation is also a concern for people living around the plant. In the city of Koriyama, Tadashi and Ritsuko Yanai and their 1-month-old baby have spent the past three weeks in a sports arena converted into a shelter. Baby Kaon, born a week before the quake, has grown accustomed to life there, including frequent radiation screenings, but his parents have not. Their home is fine, but they had to leave because it is six miles (10 kilometers) from the nuclear plant.

Asked if he had anything he would like to say to the prime minister, the 32-year-old father paused to think and then replied: "We want to go home. That's all, we just want to go home."

In Natori, where about 1,700 people are living in shelters, others had stronger words for Kan. Toru Sato, 57, lost both his wife and his house in the tsunami and said he was bothered that Kan's visit to the quake zone was so brief — about a half day.

"He's just showing up for an appearance," Sato said. "He should spend time to talk to various people, and listen to what they need."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Radioactive water leaking into sea

  1. Closed captioning of: Radioactive water leaking into sea

    >>> another setback to report tonight in the effort to gain control of the fukushima nuclear power plant in japan . highly radioactive water continues to leak directly into the pacific ocean . officials now know where it's coming from. lee cowan is in tokyo tonight.

    >> reporter: they are the latest images from the crippled power plant . steam and smoke can still be seen rising from reactor number four. but it is reactor number two that is the most immediate concern. japan 's nuclear regulator say highly radioactive water flooded that compartment and it was seeping out of a crack. engineers hope to seal the leak, but since there is so much water, so far, that hasn't worked. the radioactive iodine will disperse quickly once it hits the ocean. the real threat is to the workers on site who still have to battle to stop it. today japan 's prime minister arrived in the disaster zone. the first time he set foot in the devastated landscape since this tsunami roared ashore three weeks ago and the view is devastating. there are so many bodies being recovered, 12,000 at last count that identification is almost impossible. local crematoriums are either destroyed or overloaded. some bodies are being shipped to tokyo 's crematorium, where buddhist monks now gather to offer blessings for those they've never met.

    >> we want to be with them, those who lost their loved ones.

    >> reporter: more than 20 bodies a day have been coming here. outnumbered only by those who come to pay their respects. they arrive every few minutes, strangers bringing flowers and ernest offerings to 240those who have lost so much. their bodies, this woman lamented, are just so far from home . out of all that is lost, and there is plenty. dignity, it seems, still stood strong. lee cowan, nbc news, tokyo .

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Map: Japan earthquake

  1. Above: Map Japan earthquake
  2. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Timeline Crisis in Japan
  3. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster

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