April 7, 2011 in Nation/World

Workers pumping nitrogen into reactor

Japan officials hope to prevent more explosions
Mari Yamaguchi Associated Press
 

TOKYO – After notching a rare victory by stopping highly radioactive water from flowing into the Pacific, workers at Japan’s flooded nuclear power complex turned to their next task today: injecting nitrogen to prevent more hydrogen explosions.

Nuclear officials said Wednesday there was no immediate threat of explosions like the three that rocked the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant not long after a massive tsunami hit on March 11, but their plans are a reminder of how much work remains to stabilize the complex.

Workers are racing to cool down the plant’s reactors, which have been overheating since power was knocked out by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that killed as many as 25,000 people.

Unable to restore normal cooling systems because water has damaged them and radioactivity has made conditions dangerous, workers have resorted to pumping water into the reactors and letting it gush wherever it can.

Superheated or damaged fuel rods can pull explosive hydrogen from cooling water. If the gas were to combine with oxygen, there could be a blast, but nitrogen reduces that possibility.

Technicians began pumping nitrogen into an area around one of the plant’s six reactors early today to counteract the hydrogen, said Makoto Watanabe, a spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. They want to prevent hydrogen explosions that could spew radiation and damage the reactors.

An internal report from March 26 by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned such explosions could occur.

The nitrogen pumping also has risks, but the nuclear agency approved it as a necessary measure to avoid danger, spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said. The injection will take six days and could release radioactive vapor into the environment, but residents within 12 miles of the plant have been evacuated.

At the plant, 140 miles northeast of Tokyo, workers finally halted the leak of highly contaminated water that raised worry about the safety of seafood caught off the coast.

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