TOKYO — Japan's government Friday urged residents living within 18 miles of the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant to voluntarily leave their homes and suggested that officials could expand the mandatory evacuation zone.
People living within 12 miles of the plant have been evacuated, yet those living between 12 and 18 miles of the facility have been told it is safe to remain as long as they stay indoors. But two weeks after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the country and hobbled the plant, causing radiation to leak, the situation has yet to be resolved.
"It has become increasingly difficult for goods to arrive, and life has become harder," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said at a news conference. He called upon local governments in the zone near the plant to encourage people to leave. It was not immediately clear how many people remained within 18 miles of the plant.
As the country marked the second week since the disaster and the official death toll crossed 10,000, Prime Minister Naoto Kan addressed the nation, urging victims to "summon the courage to keep moving forward" and pledging the "utmost" efforts to rebuild the country.
But under pointed questioning from reporters, Kan said that the situation at the Fukushima plant remained "grave and serious."
"We are not in a position where we can be optimistic. We must treat every development with the utmost care," he said, dressed in a blue jumpsuit.
He also apologized to farmers and business owners around the plant for damage caused, and sought to rebut criticism that his government has failed to communicate in a clear and timely fashion with the public and foreign governments about the situation at the Fukushima plant.
Kan's remarks came after nuclear safety agency officials said that they suspected a breach in the reactor core of one unit at the quake-damaged plant.
Two workers at the facility were hospitalized for radiation exposure Thursday after stepping into contaminated water during repair operations at reactor No. 3. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said water in the turbine room where the workers were exposed registered about 10,000 times the level of radiation found in coolant inside a reactor. That could indicate there was damage to the core and a leak through the containment vessel, the agency said.
"The source of the radiation seems to be the reactor core," said Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama. It is "more likely" that the radiation was from the core than from the spent fuel pool, he said.
The two hospitalized workers received a dose of 170 to 180 millisieverts of radiation, officials said. The average American, by comparison, is exposed to 6.2 millisieverts of radiation a year from natural sources, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Water used in the cooling process seeped into the workers' boots and came into contact with their skin, authorities said. The third worker was protected by his clothing. All three were equipped with radiation-detection devices, which sounded an alarm, but they continued to work, officials with TokyoElectric Power Co. said. That revelation prompted Japanese nuclear officials Friday to call for a review of safety procedures at the site.
Japan has been cooling the reactors and spent-fuel pools at the nuclear facility by spraying them with seawater because normal cooling systems were knocked out by the quake and tsunami. But Japan's defense ministry said that American officials had expressed grave concern that the saltwater could cause equipment to seize up and corrode, making resolution of the situation even more difficult.
Japanese officials said the U.S. was dispatching a vessel carrying fresh water from Yokosuka naval base to the Fukushima site.
The death toll in the disaster rose to 10,066 on Friday, and the number of missing stood at 17,452, the National Police Agency said. More than 200,000 remain in shelters.