A technician in protective gear looks out of automatic door at a makeshift facility in Nihonmatsu, northern Japan, to screen, cleanse and isolate people who may have been exposed to radiation. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters
Dangerous levels of radiation leaking from a crippled nuclear plant forced Japan to order 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors Tuesday after an explosion and a fire dramatically escalated the crisis spawned by a deadly earthquake and tsunami.

In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said radiation has spread from the four stricken reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant along Japan's northeastern coast.

The region was shattered by Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that is believed to have killed more than 10,000 people, plunged millions into misery and pummelled the world's third-largest economy.

Japanese officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency that the reactor fire was in a storage pond and that "radioactivity is being released directly into the atmosphere." Long after the fire was extinguished, a Japanese official said the pool, where used nuclear fuel is kept cool, might be boiling.

"We cannot deny the possibility of water boiling" in the pool, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, an official with the Economy Ministry, which oversees nuclear safety.

That reactor, Unit 4, had been shut down before the quake for maintenance.

There have been three explosions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex since the quake and tsunami knocked out power, crippling the systems needed to keep nuclear fuel cool.

Yukio Edano, chief cabinet secretary, warned that the fire had helped release more radiation.

"Now we are talking about levels that can damage human health. These are readings taken near the area where we believe the releases are happening. Far away, the levels should be lower," he said.

"Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight. Don't turn on ventilators. Please hang your laundry indoors."

"These are figures that potentially affect health, there is no mistake about that," he said.

Japanese officials had previously said radiation levels at the plant were within safe limits, and international scientists said that while there were serious dangers, there was little risk of a catastrophe like Chornobyl in Ukraine.

Japanese authorities have been injecting seawater as a coolant, and advising nearby residents to stay inside to avoid contamination.

Concerns about radiation from leaking nuclear reactors is causing anxiety for people in Japan, including visitors trying to flee the area devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.

The only major route heading south from Fukushima city is jammed with stop and go traffic as an exodus of people try to flee the region. Most drivers and passengers were wearing masks.

"I don't think they are telling us the truth. Maybe even they don't know," said Toshiaki Kiuchi, a 63-year-old innkeeper whose business in the community of Soma was flooded by waist-deep water in Friday's tsunami.

Soma is about 50 kilometres north of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which means it's about 20 kilometres from the evacuation zone.

"It's like a horror movie," said 49-year-old Kyoko Nambu as she stood on a hillside overlooking her ruined hometown of Soma. "Our house is gone and now they are telling us to stay indoors.

"We can see the damage to our houses, but radiation? ... We have no idea what is happening. I am so scared."

Disaster fuels fears
The disaster has fuelled fallout fears in Japan, which relies heavily on nuclear power but whose public is especially sensitive to radiation due to the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"We are really afraid, as if we didn't already have enough to worry about. You can't see fallout so we are totally relying on them for our lives," said Shinako Tachiya, 70. A lifelong resident of Soma, who was cleaning up her lightly damaged house on high ground overlooking the ravaged town.

Even though their town is outside the evacuation zone, residents of Soma worry they could be threatened by further nuclear problems.

"I used to believe the nuclear power officials, but not now. I think they are not being open with us. They aren't telling us anything," said Tachiya.

"The only information we get is what we see on TV or hear on the radio. They don't tell us anything about our safety, just technical jargon and warnings to stay out of the official evacuation zone,” said Kiuchi.

Panicked residents began leaving the town Monday night after a second explosion was reported.

"We have to get out of here now!" one man said. "It's just not safe anymore."

Kiuchi is one of those who have stayed. He said he has no way of leaving even if he was evacuated because his car was wrecked by the tsunami.

"This is where we live. They built a nuclear facility here, so we just have to deal with it."

Visitors to Japan have been clogging airports trying to leave the country.

Alexander Banko, 28, of Montreal was visiting his brother, who lives in Tokyo, but the entomologist was happy to be heading home Tuesday on an Air Canada flight out of Narita airport.

"If I had no plane ticket for today, I would've left earlier," he said. "It's not conclusive about the radiation … it's not enough studied."

'I think we should really worry'
Hristina Gaydarska, 28, who lives in Eastern Europe, has been studying public policy in Japan for the past six months and has been trying to book a flight home. She was supposed to stay for a year, but she's not sure she will return.

"I think we should really worry. It's Japanese culture that they accept it's their destiny. But I think we should leave," she said.

Dozens of Chinese citizens jostled for a seat on one of half a dozen buses chartered by their government in Migata, on Japan's west coast. They are hoping to get on flights back to China to escape the radiation risks from the crippled reactors about 150 kilometres away.

Japan's nuclear woes have compounded challenges already faced by the Tokyo government as it deals with twin disasters that flattened entire communities and left as many as 10,000 dead.

Global concerns have also been raised about the safety of nuclear power at a time when it has seen a resurgence as an alternative to fossil fuels.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the Japanese government has asked the agency to send experts to help.

Japan's meteorological agency reported one good sign. It said the prevailing wind in the area of the stricken plant was heading east into the Pacific, which would help carry away any radiation.

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