New Zealanders were yesterday advised to consider fleeing Tokyo as French safety officials warned of a nuclear catastrophe in Japan that could be "worse than Chernobyl".
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade upgraded its advisory for Kiwis in areas around the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant and told them to leave unless there was a pressing need to stay.
"In regards to Fukushima ... we are now advising an increase in the suitable safe zone from the facility. As a precautionary measure New Zealanders who live within an 80km radius should leave," Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said.
Japanese authorities have advised that the nuclear crisis is slowly being stabilised, but Mr McCully said yesterday media reports had painted a different story.
Nuclear safety officials in France said they were pessimistic about whether engineers could prevent a meltdown at the Fukushima power plant after reports that a pool in reactor 4 containing spent fuel rods had overheated and boiled dry.
Radiation levels were extremely high in the stricken building, which was breached by an earlier explosion, meaning that radiation could now escape into the atmosphere.
Tokyo Electric, the owners of the plant, said five workers had been killed at the site, two were missing and 21 had been injured.
As Japan resorted to increasingly desperate measures - including dumping water on the site from helicopters and firing water cannons - there were accusations that the situation was now out of control.
Thierry Charles, a safety official at France's Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety said on Wednesday: "The next 48 hours will be decisive. I am pessimistic, because since Sunday I have seen that almost none of the solutions has worked."
He described the situation as a major risk, but said: "All is not lost, and I hope that the Japanese can find a way."
Asked about the maximum possible amount of radioactive release, he said it would be in the same range as Chernobyl.
Francois Baroin, a French Government spokesman, went further, saying: "In the worst of cases, it could have an impact worse than Chernobyl.
"Let's not beat about the bush. They have visibly lost ... control. That is our analysis, in any case, it's not what they are saying."
France, which operates the largest nuclear power programme 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 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, 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.
Meanwhile, a New Zealander for whom the Government had serious concerns yesterday called home for the first time in a week.
Peter Setter, 45, was in Kesennuma, one of the worst-hit cities, when the tsunami struck last week.
"I'm just so happy I could cry. It's been a week of absolute torture, not knowing if he's alive or not," said his mother, Lorrie.
"He's only just got to an evacuation area and managed to call from there ... we're all so relieved."
- additional reporting agencies