It could take several more months to bring Japan's tsunami-ravaged nuclear plant under control, a safety agency spokesman said Sunday as engineers tried to find a way to stop highly radioactive water from pouring into the Pacific.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex has been spewing radioactivity since the March 11 tsunami carved a path of destruction along Japan's northeastern coast, killing as many as 25,000 people. The final death toll is not known because many are still missing.

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A Tokyo Electric Power Co. employee points at a maintenance pit at the Fukushima Daiichi plant which has a crack inside (not visible in the photo.) (TEPCO/Associated Press )

Nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama on Sunday offered the first sense of how long it might take to bring an end to the nuclear crisis, which has forced people within 20 kilometres of the plant to abandon their homes due to radiation concerns.

"It would take a few months until we finally get things under control and have a better idea about the future," Nishiyama said.

'Crucial turning point' in months

"We'll face a crucial turning point within the next few months, but that is not the end."

Bringing the reactors at the plant under control will require permanently restoring cooling systems knocked out by the tsunami that prevent reactors from dangerously overheating. That task has been complicated by dangerous conditions at the plant that have often forced workers to stop what they are doing.

'It pains us to have lost these two young workers who were trying to protect the power plant amid the earthquake and  tsunami.' —TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata

Some new problem crops up at the complex nearly every day.

Workers discovered a 20-centimetre-long crack in a maintenance pit Saturday and said they believe water from it may be the source of some of the high levels of radioactive iodine spilling into the Pacific  for more than a week.

This is the first time they have found the water leaking directly into the sea. A picture released by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) shows water shooting some distance away from a wall and splashing into the ocean, though the amount is not clear.

Sawdust, newspaper, polymer mix

The contaminated water dissipates quickly in the ocean but could pose a danger to workers at the plant.

Engineers tried to seal the crack with concrete on Saturday, but that didn't work. So on Sunday they injected a mix of sawdust, shredded newspaper and a polymer that can expand to 50 times its normal size when combined with water. The polymer mix had not yet stopped the leak Sunday night but engineers have not given up hope and should know by Monday morning whether it will work.

TEPCO on Sunday confirmed the first tsunami deaths at the plant itself, saying a 21-year-old and a 24-year-old were conducting regular checks when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that preceded the tsunami hit.

They apparently ran to a basement turbine room, which is where they were when the massive wave swept over the plant. The men sustained multiple external injuries and are thought to have died from blood loss, according to the utility.

"It pains us to have lost these two young workers who were trying to protect the power plant amid the earthquake and  tsunami," TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said in a statement.

Bodies discovered Wednesday

The high levels of radioactivity at the plant made searching for the men dangerous. Their bodies were  discovered on Wednesday but they needed to be decontaminated before they were released to their families, TEPCO said.

The nuclear crisis has compounded the suffering of people in the northeast and, at times, overshadowed their plight. Tens of thousands have lost their homes and are living in shelters, 200,000 households do not have water, and 170,000 do not have electricity.

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An elderly couple collects personal belongings salvaged from the ruins of their home in Kirikiri on Sunday. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

The CBC's Craig Dale watched as volunteers, municipal workers and members of the military wrapped up their search for victims in the towns of Ofunato and Rikuzentakata on Sunday.

"Helicopters kept flying overhead, searching for bodies. Thousands of U.S. troops and members of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force were involved in this three-day operation."

"It has been a mammoth operation because there are more than 15,000 people still missing since the March 11 quake and tsunami."

Still, officials say they didn't find as many bodies as they had hoped. The operation involved 120 aircraft and 65 ships and covered the three prefectures hit hardest by the twin disasters. 

In all, 12,000 deaths have been confirmed.

Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters who are opposed to the use of nuclear power took to the streets of Tokyo on Sunday.

Many carried  placards calling on the Japanese government to shut down all nuclear power plants in the country.

 

With files from The Associated Press