By Linda Sieg and Chisa Fujioka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese military helicopters dumped water on an overheating nuclear plant on Thursday while the United States expressed growing alarm about leaking radiation and said it was sending aircraft to help Americans leave the country.
At the same time, engineers tried to run power from the main grid to fire up water pumps needed to cool two reactors and spent fuel rods considered to pose the biggest risk of spewing radioactivity into the atmosphere.
While Japanese officials scrambled with a patchwork of fixes, the top U.S. nuclear regulator warned that the cooling pool for spent fuel rods at reactor No.4 may have run dry and another was leaking.
Gregory Jaczko, head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told a parliamentary hearing that radiation levels around the cooling pool were extremely high, posing deadly risks for workers still toiling in the wreckage of the earthquake-shattered power plant.
"It would be very difficult for emergency workers to get near the reactors. The doses they could experience would potentially be lethal doses in a very short period of time," he said in Washington.
The plant operator said it believed the No.4 reactor spent-fuel pool still had water as of Wednesday, and made clear its priority was the spent-fuel pool at the No.3 reactor. On Thursday morning alone, military helicopters dumped around 30 tonnes of water, all aimed at this reactor.
Inside the complex, torn apart by four explosions since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit last Friday, workers in protective suits and using makeshift lighting tried to monitor what was going on inside the six reactors. They have been working in short shifts to minimize radiation exposure.
U.S. officials took pains not to criticize the Japanese government, which has shown signs of being overwhelmed by the crisis, but Washington's actions indicated a divide with its close ally about the perilousness of the situation.
Neighboring China wanted Japan to report developments "accurately" and quickly, a government spokeswoman said.
"The worst-case scenario doesn't bear mentioning and the best-case scenario keeps getting worse," Perpetual Investments said in a note on the crisis.
Japan said the United States would fly a high-altitude drone over the stricken complex to gauge the situation, and had offered to send nuclear experts.
A State Department official said flights would be laid on for Americans to leave and family of embassy staff had been authorized to leave if they wanted.
Health experts said panic over radiation leaks from the Daiichi plant, around 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, was diverting attention from other life-threatening risks facing survivors of last Friday's earthquake and tsunami, such as cold, heavy snow in parts and access to fresh water.
The latest images from the nuclear plant showed severe damage to some of the buildings after the four explosions. Two of the buildings were a mangled mix of steel and concrete.
Sebastian Pflugbeil, president of the private German-based Society for Radiation Protection, said Japan's efforts to pull the Fukushima plant back from the brink signaled "the beginning of the catastrophic phase."
"Maybe we have to pray," he said, adding that a wind blowing any nuclear fallout east into the Pacific would limit any damage for Japan's 127 million people in case of a meltdown or other releases, for instance from spent fuel storage pools.
A stream of gloomy warnings and reports on the Japan crisis from experts and officials around the world triggered a sharp fall in U.S. financial markets, with all three major stock indexes slumping on fears of slower worldwide growth.
Earlier, one G7 central banker, who asked not to be named, said he was "extremely worried" about the wider effects of the crisis in Japan, the world's third-largest economy.
G7 finance ministers will hold a conference call later on Thursday to discuss steps to help Japan cope with the financial and economic impact of the disaster, a source said.
However, Japanese Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano told Reuters that the country's markets were not unstable enough to warrant joint G7 currency intervention or government purchases of shares.
"I don't think stock and currency markets are in a state of turmoil," Yosano said.
The yen surged to a record high against the dollar on market speculation Japan would repatriate funds to pay for the massive cost of post-disaster reconstruction. The yen rose as high as 76.25 per dollar, surpassing the previous record high of 79.75 reached in the wake of the Kobe earthquake in 1995.
Japan's Nikkei average fell sharply on opening on Thursday, but ended the day down just 1.44 percent.
BID TO GET POWER RESTORED TO REACTORS
High radiation levels on Wednesday prevented a helicopter from dropping water into reactor No. 3 to try to cool its fuel rods after an earlier blast damaged its roof and cooling system.
Another attempt on Thursday appeared to partly succeed, with two of four water drops over the site hitting their mark. The giant, twin-blade aircraft have to make precisely timed flyovers and drops to avoid the brunt of the radiation.
The plant operator described No. 3 -- the only reactor that uses plutonium in its fuel mix -- as the "priority." Experts described plutonium as a very nasty isotope that could cause cancer if very small quantities were ingested.
Officials from plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said bulldozers tried to clear a path to the plant so fire trucks could get in and use hoses to cool the facility.
ANXIETY IN TOKYO, MAJOR BLACKOUT LIKELY
Scores of flights to Japan have been halted or rerouted and air travelers are avoiding Tokyo for fear of radiation.
On Thursday, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo urged citizens living within 80 km (50 miles) of the Daiichi plant to evacuate or remain indoors "as a precaution," while Britain's foreign office urged citizens "to consider leaving the area."
The latest warnings were not as strong as those issued earlier by France and Australia, which urged nationals in Japan to leave the country. Russia said it planned to evacuate families of diplomats on Friday.
Japan's government has told people within 30 km (18 miles) of the plant to stay indoors.
At its worst, radiation in Tokyo has reached 0.809 microsieverts per hour this week, 10 times below what a person would receive if exposed to a dental x-ray. Early on Thursday, radiation levels were barely above average.
But many Tokyo residents stayed indoors, usually busy streets were nearly deserted and many shops were closed.
An unexpected, large-scale power outage was possible in Tokyo and surrounding areas on Thursday evening if power demand exceeded that of the morning, Japan's trade minister said. The earthquake and tsunami cut electricity supplies.
And in a possible sign of panic, one bank, Mizuho, said all its automatic teller machines in the country briefly crashed because of excessive transactions at some branches.
SNOW COMPOUNDS MISERY FOR TSUNAMI SURVIVORS
In Japan, the plight of hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake and tsunami worsened following a cold snap that brought heavy snow to worst-affected areas.
Supplies of water and heating oil are low at evacuation centers, where many survivors wait bundled in blankets.
About 850,000 households in the north were still without electricity in near-freezing weather, Tohuku Electric Power Co. said, and the government said at least 1.5 million households lack running water.
"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.
The National Police Agency said it has confirmed 4,314 deaths in 12 prefectures as of midnight Wednesday, while 8,606 people remained unaccounted for in six prefectures.
(Additional reporting by Nathan Layne, Risa Maeda, Isabel Reynolds, Terril Yue Jones, Leika Kihara and Mayumi Negishi in Tokyo; Chris Meyers and Kim Kyung-hoon in Sendai; Taiga Uranaka and Ki Joon Kwon in Fukushima, Noel Randewich in San Francisco, and Miyoung Kim in Seoul; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by John Chalmers and Dean Yates)