A suspected breach in the reactor core at one unit of Japan's stricken nuclear plant could mean more serious radioactive contamination, officials have warned.
The uncertain situation halted work at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, where dozens of people had been working feverishly to stop the overheated plant from leaking dangerous radiation.
Suspicions of a possible breach were raised when two workers waded into water 10,000 times more radioactive than normal and suffered skin burns, the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency said.
Though damage cannot be ruled out, the cause remains unclear, spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said.
"It is possible there may be damage somewhere in the reactor," he said, adding later that there is no data suggesting there are any cracks and a leak in the plumbing or the vents could be to blame.
The confusion was yet another setback to the urgent task of gaining control of the Fukushima plant 140 miles north east of Tokyo, two weeks after the massive earthquake triggered a tsunami that engulfed the facility and knocked out its crucial cooling system.
The plant has been releasing radiation, with elevated levels turning up in raw milk, sea water and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips.
Tap water in several areas of Japan - including Tokyo - has been found to contain levels of cancer-causing radioactive iodine which could cause harm to infants.
Officials are also grappling with a humanitarian crisis in the north east, where hundreds of thousands of survivors remain camped out in schools and civic buildings two weeks after the tsunami swallowed up swathes of the coast.
Police said the official death toll has now jumped past the 10,000 mark. But with the clean-up and recovery operation continuing and more than 17,400 listed as missing, the final number of dead is expected to pass 18,000.