A major international mission to investigate Japan's flooded, radiation-leaking nuclear complex began Tuesday as new information suggested that nuclear fuel had mostly melted in two more reactors in the early days after the March 11 tsunami.
That would mean that all three of the most troubled reactors at the plant have suffered partial meltdowns.
The team of UN nuclear experts met with Japanese officials and planned to visit the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in coming days to investigate the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986 and assess efforts to stabilize the complex by Tokyo's self-declared deadline of early next year.
Meanwhile, the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., released a new analysis suggesting that fuel rods in the plant's Units 2 and 3 mostly melted during the early days of the crisis, which had been suspected but not confirmed.
In addition, some chunks of the fuel appeared to have entered the outer containment chambers, causing some damage. That suggests that the severity of the accident was greater than officials have acknowledged. TEPCO announced similar findings last week about Unit 1.
The new revelations indicate that earlier official assessments may have been too optimistic, said Goshi Hosono, director of Japan's nuclear crisis task force.
"We should have made a more cautious damage estimate based on a worse scenario," he said.
Fuel in three of the plant's six reactors started melting just hours after the March 11 tsunami knocked out cooling systems, prompting huge releases of radiation into the atmosphere — about one-tenth of the radiation released from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, according to a government estimate.
The melted fuel rods, which appear to have fallen into a lump at the bottom of each of the three pressure vessels, currently pose no immediate problem because they are mostly covered with water being pumped into the chamber and are at temperatures far below dangerous levels, officials say.
The plant is still leaking radiation, but at much lower levels than immediately after the accident, and Japanese officials hope to bring the entire plant to a "cold shutdown" — halting all radioactive leaks — by January at the latest.
In the meantime, 80,000 people remain evacuated from homes around the plant.