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More smoke from Japanese nuclear plant

A television crew filmed more white smoke coming from a reactor building at the stricken Fukushima power station on Wednesday morning. Workers had to leave the plant because of raised radiation levels.

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''WHAT the hell is going on?'' The Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, was overheard asking executives from Tokyo Electric Power Company, shortly after a live broadcast to his nation about the nuclear emergency.

''The TV reported an explosion. But nothing was said to the Premier's office for about an hour,'' Mr Kan said, according to a reporter from the Kyodo news agency who was present at the broadcast on Tuesday.

He also reported Mr Kan as saying: ''In the event of withdrawal from there, I'm 100 per cent certain that the company will collapse.''

Tokyo Electric, whose front-line workers are risking death to keep pumping enough water into three damaged nuclear reactors and a used fuel rod storage area at its Daiichi power station, is facing fierce criticism in Japan. Its announcements have been slow, often lagging hours behind the cautious statements from the Japanese government, and rapidly overtaken by events.

Mr Kan took over nominal control of the effort to stop nuclear meltdown on Tuesday, installing himself at the head of a taskforce based in the company's Tokyo headquarters.

The relationship has historically been strained by the company's poor safety record and previous repeated attempts to conceal safety breaches at several of its 17 nuclear reactors.

In 2002, Tokyo Electric was the subject of a major scandal that caused a renewed debate about the safety of nuclear reactors in Japan. A government investigation showed that systematic concealment of safety breaches ran back for two decades, and included workers being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

Over the course of a three-year investigation, it emerged that up to 13 of the protective shells surrounding reactors had cracks, that some officials in the company knew this, and that deliberate attempts to supply auditors with false information had taken place.

According to reports at the time, the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency tested the integrity of some parts of the reactors every 13 months, without finding major faults.

But it left the inspections of protective shrouds around the reactors and the water pumping mechanisms to Tokyo Electric, which contracted out the inspections and then failed to report the true results to the government agency. In all, 29 safety logs were partly falsified, and up to 200 incidents went unreported.

''It betrayed the public's trust over nuclear energy,'' the Vice-Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry, Seiji Murata, said at the time.

All the Tokyo Electric plants in Japan, including the three reactors in the Daiichi plant which are thought to have experienced a partial nuclear meltdown, were temporarily closed while tests took place and safety procedures revised.

The company's president, Nobuya Minami, resigned. ''There is no room for excuses,'' he was quoted as saying when the scandal broke. ''I deeply regret the incident and cannot apologise enough for it.''

The release of a WikiLeaks cable this week, reported in London's Daily Telegraph, showed the International Atomic Energy Agency had also voiced concerns about Japanese nuclear safety precautions back in December 2008.

The cable quoted an agency official saying that strong earthquakes would pose a ''serious problem'' for Japan's plants. The company responded by building the emergency response centre in Fukushima, which is now being used to help direct efforts to stop a meltdown.

with agencies