Japan Officials: Nuclear Leaks Now Dangerous; Stay Inside

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"Nuclear crisis' severity ranks between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl."

Japanese officials are now ordering 140,000 people living near nuclear power plants damaged by Friday's 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami to stay indoors and seal their doors and windows.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in a televised statement that radiation has spread from four damaged nuclear reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi atomic power plant.

Japanese officials told the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that "radioactivity is being released directly into the atmosphere" after a fire broke out in a storage pond for spent fuel at one of the four reactors. The fire was extinguished earlier today.

"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," said Yukio Edano, chief cabinet secretary.

"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."

Until now, Japanese officials have said radiation levels at the plant were within safe limits.

Tuesday, foreign companies ordered evacuations of employees upon news of the severity of the nuclear disaster.

The head of France's Nuclear Safety Authority, Andre-Claude Lacoste commented on Tuesday that the situation in Japan is less severe than the core explosion at Chernobyl, but worse than the 1979 partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania.

"We are now in a situation that is different from yesterday's. It is very clear that we are at a level six, which is an intermediate level between what happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl," the ASN president said at a news conference in Paris.

Japanese officials had originally rated the situation at the plant in Fukushima as a level four on the seven-point scale.

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