Japan’s nuclear crisis appeared to be spinning out of control yesterday after workers withdrew briefly from a stricken power plant because of surging radiation levels and a helicopter failed to drop water on the most troubled reactor.

In a sign of desperation, police will try to cool spent nuclear fuel using a water cannon, normally used to quell riots.

Early in the day, another fire broke out at the earthquake-crippled facility, which has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo in the past 24 hours, triggering fear in the capital and international alarm.

Japan’s government said radiation levels outside the plant’s gates were stable but, in a sign of being overwhelmed, appealed to private firms to help deliver supplies to tens of thousands of people evacuated from around the complex.

The European Union’s energy chief told the European Parliament that the plant was “effectively out of control” after breakdowns in the cooling system.

Workers cleared debris to build a road so fire trucks could reach reactor No. 4 at the Daiichi complex in Fukushima, 150 miles north of Tokyo. Flames were no longer visible at the building housing the reactor.

The plant operator described No. 3 — the only reactor at that uses plutonium in its fuel mix — as the “priority.” Plutonium, once absorbed in the bloodstream, can linger for years in bone marrow or liver and lead to cancer.

The situation at No. 4 reactor, where the fire broke out, was “not so good,” the plant operator added, while water was being poured into reactors No. 5 and 6, indicating the entire six-reactor facility was now at risk of overheating.

Refugees huddle in snowfall

In Japan, the plight of hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake and devastating tsunami that followed worsened following a cold snap that brought snow to worst-affected areas.

Supplies of water and heating oil are low at evacuation centers, where many survivors wait bundled in blankets.

“It’s cold today so many people have fallen ill, getting diarrhea and other symptoms,” said Takanori Watanabe, a Red Cross doctor in Otsuchi, a low-lying town where more than half the 17,000 residents are still missing.

Damage to Japan’s manufacturing base and infrastructure is also threatening significant disruption to the global supply chain.

Tokyo: Metropolis is now ghost town

As Japanese authorities struggle to avert nuclear disaster 150 miles north, parts of Tokyo resemble a ghost town. Many stocked up on food and stayed indoors or simply left, transforming one of the world’s biggest and most populated cities into a shell of itself.

Radiation in Tokyo has been negligible, smaller than a dental X-ray. But that does little to allay public anxiety about an ailing 40-year-old nuclear comp-lex with three reactors in partial meltdown and a fourth with spent atomic fuel exposed to the atmosphere.

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