Japan's government criticized the operator of a radiation-leaking nuclear plant Saturday, as news broke that radioactive iodine levels in the nearby sea reached 1,250 times the safety limit.

"We strongly urge TEPCO to provide information to the government more promptly," government spokesperson Yukio Edano said.

Edano urged Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to be more transparent, and faulted the company for sending workers into the plant without protective footwear.

Two workers were injured by radiation burns this week, wearing boots that only came up to their ankles.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said TEPCO knew two days before the accident that there was high radiation in the air at one of the plant's six reactors.

The United States Navy, meanwhile, rushed to deliver fresh water to replace corrosive saltwater now being used in a desperate bid to cool the plant's overheated reactors.

"Regardless of whether there was an awareness of high radioactivity in the stagnant water, there were problems in the way work was conducted," agency spokesperson Hidehiko Nishiyama said.

NISA warned TEPCO to improve and ensure workers' safety, and TEPCO has taken measures to that effect, Nishiyama said, without elaborating.

A TEPCO spokesperson declined to comment.

The government's admonishments came as workers at the plant struggled to stop a troubling rise in radioactivity and remove dangerously contaminated water from the facility, which has been leaking radiation since a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11 knocked out the plant's key cooling systems.

On Saturday, Nishiyama said levels reached 1,250 times higher than normal after both airborne radiation released from the reactors and contaminated water leaked into the sea.

But he said the amount posed no immediate health risk.

Officials have been using seawater to try to cool the plant, but fears are growing that the corrosive salt in the water could further damage the machinery inside the reactor units.

TEPCO is now rushing to inject the reactors with fresh water instead, and to begin extracting the radioactive water, Nishiyama said.

Defense Minister Yoshimi Kitazawa said late Friday that the U.S. government had made "an extremely urgent" request to switch to fresh water. He said the U.S. military was sending water to nearby Onahama Bay and that water injections could begin in the next few days.

The U.S. 7th Fleet confirmed that barges loaded with 500,000 gallons of fresh water supplies were on their way.

Efforts to get the nuclear plant under control took on fresh urgency this week when nuclear safety officials said they suspected a breach in one or more of the plant's units -- possibly a crack or hole in the stainless steel chamber around the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 reactor's core containing fuel rods or the concrete wall surrounding a pool where spent fuel rods are stored.

The development suggests that radioactive contamination may be worse than first thought, with tainted groundwater the most likely consequence.

'We must remain vigilant'

The news comes as the country faced some fresh death toll numbers, which are almost double the original estimates after the earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11.

The official death toll stood at 10,151 Saturday, with more than 17,000 listed as missing, police said. With the cleanup and recovery operations continuing, the final number of dead was expected to surpass 18,000.

Japanese leaders defended their decision not to evacuate people from a wider area around the plant, insisting they are safe if they stay indoors. But officials said residents may want to voluntarily move to areas with better facilities, since supplies in the tsunami-devastated region are running short.

Across the battered northeast coast, hundreds of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed still have no power, no hot meals and, in many cases, no water.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the situation was still very grave and serious.

"We must remain vigilant," a sombre Kan said Friday night. "We are not in a position where we can be optimistic. We must treat every development with the utmost care."

The prime minister apologized to farmers and business owners for the toll the radiation has had on their livelihoods: Several countries have halted some food imports from areas near the plant after elevated levels of radiation were found in raw milk, sea water and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips.

In Tokyo, tap water showed radiation levels two times higher than the government standard for infants, who are particularly vulnerable to cancer-causing radioactive iodine, officials said.

The scare caused a run on bottled water in the capital, and Tokyo municipal officials are distributing it to families with babies.

The nuclear crisis has compounded the challenges faced by a nation already saddled with a humanitarian disaster. Much of the frigid northeast remains a scene of despair and devastation, with Japan struggling to feed and house hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors, clear away debris and bury the dead.

"It's still like I'm in a dream," said Tomohiko Abe, a 45-year-old machinist who was in the devastated coastal town of Onagawa trying to salvage any belongings he could from his ruined car. "People say it's like a movie, but it's been worse than any movie I've ever seen."