Small fire put out at Japan's damaged nuke plant

(AP) - Workers at Japan's tsunami-stricken nuclear powercomplex discovered a small fire near a reactor building Tuesday butit was extinguished quickly, the plant's operator said. The setback was a further sign that the crisis at the plant hasnot abated, and came amid reports that Japanese nuclear regulatorswere raising the severity of the accident to the highest level, 7,on par with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the disabled FukushimaDai-ichi nuclear power plant, said the fire at a box that containsbatteries in a building near the No. 4 reactor was discovered atabout 6:38 a.m. Tuesday and was put out seven minutes later. It wasn't clear whether the fire was related to a magnitude-6.3earthquake that shook the Tokyo area Tuesday morning. The cause ofthe fire is being investigated. "The fire was extinguished immediately. It has no impact onUnit 4's cooling operations for the spent fuel rods," said TEPCOspokesman Naoki Tsunoda. The plant was damaged in a massive tsunami March 11 that knockedout cooling systems and backup diesel generators, leading toexplosions at three reactors and a fire at a fourth that wasundergoing regular maintenance and was empty of fuel. The magnitude-9.0 earthquake that caused the tsunami immediatelystopped the three reactors, but overheated cores and a lack ofcooling functions led to further damage. Engineers have been able to pump water into the damaged reactorsto cool them down, but leaks have resulted in the pooling of tonsof contaminated, radioactive water that has prevented workers fromconducting further repairs. Aftershocks on Monday briefly cut power to backup pumps, haltingthe injection of cooling water for about 50 minutes before powerwas restored. On Tuesday, Kyodo News agency and public broadcaster NHK bothreported that Japan's nuclear safety agency had decided to raisethe severity level of the crisis at Fukushima to 7 - the highestlevel and equal to the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in the formerSoviet Union. Both reports quoted sources at the Nuclear and Industrial SafetyAgency. NISA spokesman Minoru Oogoda declined to confirm thereports. A month after the disaster, more than 145,000 people are stillliving in shelters, and the government on Monday added fivecommunities to a list of places people should leave to avoidlong-term radiation exposure. A 12-mile radius has already been cleared aroundthe plant. The disaster is believed to have killed more than 25,000 people,but many of those bodies were swept out to sea and more than halfof those feared dead are still listed as missing.

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