By Mari Saito
TOKYO, March 28 (Reuters) - Work to remove spent fuel rods from Japan's destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant has been halted after possible damage to a giant crane, the first major delay in an operation to remove 1,533 fuel rod assemblies from a holding pool.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) has been retrieving highly irradiated spent fuel rods from the No. 4 reactor building at Fukushima, which was hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 in the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Fuel retrieval was halted after a worker started moving a crane used to lift the fuel assemblies without disengaging the handbrake on Wednesday, generating a warning alarm, a Tepco spokesman said.
Workers and the crane's manufacturer were inspecting the equipment and hoped to restart operations as soon as possible.
About 160,000 people nearest the plant were ordered to move out and the government established a 20-km compulsory evacuation zone after an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 caused reactor meltdowns and contaminated water, vegetables and air.
Tepco has been widely criticised for its handling of the cleanup in the past three years. The operator was plagued by a series of leaks of radioactive water from hastily built tanks at the site last year.
The delicate task of removing the fuel assemblies - each weighing about 300 kg (660 pounds) and containing 50 to 70 fuel rods - began last November and has won the company rare praise.
Some 550 fuel assemblies have been removed so far and Tepco hopes to complete the operation by the end of the year.
In a separate incident, a contract worker in his 50s died on Friday after he was buried under gravel while excavating ground near the plant. Tepco has not identified the worker, but said he had been working in Fukushima for three years.
More than 4,000 workers are taking part in the Fukushima plant cleanup, a task expected to span decades.
A majority are contract labourers hired by multiple layers of construction companies. A Reuters investigation last year found widespread labour abuses, where workers said their pay was skimmed and there was little scrutiny over working conditions inside the plant.
Tepco president Naomi Hirose met nuclear regulator this month and promised the company will improve working conditions. (Reporting by Mari Saito; Editing by Nick Macfie)