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A second reactor containment vessel is feared broken at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and international authorities have voiced rising fears that Japan‘s nuclear emergency is more dangerous than its government is saying publicly.

Five days of desperate efforts – including a failed water-bombing mission by military helicopters late yesterday – have been unable to stop the spread of radiation into the atmosphere from the stricken power plant.

Concerns last night centred on spent fuel rods in the No 4 reactor, which are in a cooling tank but have been left exposed by a drop in the tank’s water.

As the tank is not within a steel and concrete containment vessel, and the building containing the tank has been damaged by explosions, any radioactive material released by the rods would rise directly into the atmosphere.

The chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned early today there was no water left in the spent fuel pool of reactor No 4 at Fukushima, resulting in “extremely high” radiation levels. Japanese officials denied all the water had gone.

However UN atomic watchdog chief Yukiya Amano also declared the situation at Fukushima “very serious,” as he prepared to see the damage for himself.

Most of the radioactive steam was being blown east and northeast yesterday into the Pacific Ocean, but the World Meteorological Organisation said wind conditions could change in coming days.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd advised Australians in Tokyo and further north last night to consider leaving, and the French government has issued more urgent advice, saying its citizens in the capital should leave the country or at least travel south.

US officials early today warned citizens living within 80 kilometres of the crippled plant to evacuate or seek shelter – a much wider no-go zone than the 20km radius perimeter set up by the Japanese.

France, which operates the largest nuclear power program in Europe, is disputing the official Japanese assessment of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis of level four on the seven-step International Nuclear and Radiological Events.

The French government has assessed the worsening situation at Fukushima, where there were at least two more fires yesterday, and all emergency workers were temporarily evacuated, at level six.

This rates the Japanese events on the same level as the worst American incident, the 1979 contained meltdown at Three Mile Island, and one step below the worst nuclear plant accident ever experienced, Chernobyl, in 1986.

That assessment was backed by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on nuclear proliferation issues.

ISIS noted that level four indicated “only local radiological consequences”, whereas Fukushima “is now closer to a level six, and it may unfortunately reach a level seven”. The assessments came as Europe’s Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said yesterday the word “apocalypse” was appropriate to describe Japan’s nuclear crisis.

“From everything that we have understood, this nuclear power plant, with its six reactors . . . pretty much everything is out of control,” Mr Oettinger said.

In Paris, the government has ordered Air France to put its Asia-Pacific services on stand-by for evacuation duties and two special flights were due at Tokyo’s Narita international airport this morning for those who want to leave now.

Several other airlines are diverting flights while the German carrier Lufthansa has diverted all services into Tokyo.

Thousands of residents are attempting to flee the area around the Fukushima plant, but roads are gridlocked and the last operating railway station is reportedly jammed.

In Tokyo, about 250km south of the plant, thousands of people, mostly foreign citizens, had already gone to southern cities or left the capital by yesterday morning, and a growing list of international companies, including BMW, Blackstone and SAP, were advising or allowing their employees to leave.

The Chinese government moved about 900 of its people from areas around Fukushima to Tokyo yesterday, ready to fly them out of the country.

Even locals hardened by frequent big earthquakes are badly shaken by the combination of Friday’s earthquake, the tsunami in northeast Honshu and the Fukushima crisis which, every morning since Saturday, has grown markedly worse. Nerves were further strained mid-morning yesterday by an extended magnitude-6 earthquake east of Tokyo and only 10km off the Chiba coast.

Last night, 77-year-old Emperor Akihito was seen and heard publicly for the first time since Friday’s disaster. “The number of people killed is increasing day by day and we do not know how many people have fallen victim. I pray for the safety of as many people as possible,” said the emperor, who very rarely does live television broadcasts. Even after the 1995 Kobe quake, which caused 6400 deaths, he only issued a statement.

He was “deeply concerned” by the “unpredictable” nature of the Fukushima troubles. “I sincerely hope that we can keep the situation from getting worse,” Mr Akihito said. The official death toll from the quake and tsunami it unleashed stood at 3676 last night, but authorities believed it could pass 10,000, with entire towns washed away.

Mr Rudd said last night the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had issued new advice yesterday afternoon to travellers and Australians living in Japan.

“So what we’re saying to people who do not regard their presence as essential in Tokyo and those eight affected prefectures is that they should consider departing Japan,” Mr Rudd said.

However, DFAT said its advice was based upon disruptions to transport, communications, electricity supplies and school classes, “not related to fears about nuclear contamination from the Fukushima reactors”.

Last night, a plan to drop water on the No 4 reactor building from helicopters was abandoned for the day. Operator Tokyo Electric Power Co and emergency service workers had been trying for two days to get seawater into the reactor building to douse dangerously exposed spent fuel rods, where it is feared the normal 8m coverage of water has leaked away or boiled off.

Local media reported the plan had been abandoned because of difficult winds or excessive radiation. Japan last night asked the National Police Agency to send a water cannon to the Fukushima plant to help pour water into the containment pool holding the spent fuel rods.

A second fire in the pool extinguished itself yesterday morning, with emergency workers unable to get within 50m because of the radiation risk.

But white steam and smoke began venting from the crippled No 3 reactor, the source of the worst radiation levels at the plant. It also was extinguished later.

As on-site radiation levels soared, the remaining 50 people struggling to contain the plant crisis were evacuated.

Radiation levels had begun to subside from the 10am peak, chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said later, and the workers returned to the site yesterday afternoon. But he conceded that the containment vessel for the No 3 reactor was probably breached – allowing uncontrolled release of irradiated gases and particles – as was feared for the No 2 reactor after an explosion on Sunday. He said Japan would likely seek assistance from the US military.

Japan has also asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to send technical experts to Fukushima urgently. General Electric, the US manufacturer of the six Fukushima reactors, has offered 1000 engineers to work on the problems at the plant.