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Missing workers found dead at Japan nuclear plant

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Two missing Fukushima nuclear plant workers were found dead on Sunday as more highly radioactive water spilled into the sea and authorities struggled to seal the leak.

The two workers — a 21-year-old and a 24-year-old — had been missing since a massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami, but their bodies were discovered only last week at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex.

Damage to the plant from the tsunami has spiraled into the world's worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union.

"It pains me that these two young workers were trying to protect the power plant while being hit by the earthquake and tsunami," Tokyo Electric Power Co. Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said in a statement.

The announcement of the death was delayed out of consideration for the families, said Naoki Tsunoda, a spokesman for TEPCO.

The men sustained multiple external injuries and are believed to have died from blood loss, Tsunoda said. Their bodies had to be decontaminated because radiation has been spewing from the plant over the past three weeks.

The National Police Agency said that 12,009 people were officially reported dead and 15,472 missing in the aftermath of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami.

On Saturday, workers discovered an 8-inch-long crack in a maintenance pit at the Fukushima plant that they said was believed to have been caused by the earthquake. Water containing levels of radioactive iodine far above the legal limit spilled from it into the Pacific, said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

A picture released by TEPCO shows water shooting some distance away from a wall and splashing into the sea, though the amount of water was not clear. The contaminated water was expected to quickly dissipate in the ocean but could pose a danger to workers at the plant.

Pooling water at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex — which is believed to come from the reactor cores — has repeatedly forced technicians to pull back and suspend their work.

Word of the leak came Saturday as Prime Minister Naoto Kan toured the town of Rikuzentakata, his first trip to survey damage in one of the dozens of villages, towns and cities slammed by the tsunami.

"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.

More than 165,000 are still living in shelters, and tens of thousands more still do not have electricity or running water.

Although the government had rushed to provide relief, its attention has been divided by the efforts at the Fuskushima plant.

The plant's reactors overheated to dangerous levels after electrical pumps — deprived of power — failed to circulate water to keep them cool. A series of almost daily problems have led to substantial amounts of radiation leaking into the atmosphere, ground and sea. Huge hydrogen explosions destroyed the buildings surrounding two of the reactors.

Over the past 10 days, pools of contaminated water have been found throughout the plant and high levels of radioactivity have been measured in the ocean, but this marks the first time authorities said they had found a spot where the water was directly entering the sea.

A search of the plant found no other similar leaks leading directly to the ocean. "We believe that's the only crack," said Tsunoda, the TEPCO spokesman.

Soon after the discovery, workers tried to seal the crack but could not get the concrete to dry. Next, they will try injecting polymer, according to Tsunoda.

People living within 12 miles of the plant have been evacuated.

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. Kan's visit Saturday to Rikuzentakata did little to alleviate their worries.

"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 by the tsunami.

The prime minister 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.

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggers a tsunami, causing enormous damage and killing thousands.

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.

He said the tsunami littered the area around the plant with dead fish and sharks, and that 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."

Msnbc.com staff contributed to this report from The Associated Press.