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Japan struggling to contain nuclear crisis

world Updated: Mar 17, 2011 01:21 IST

Racing against time to control a fast-escalating nuclear crisis, Japan on Wednesday placed top priority on two of the six reactors at the quake-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex.

An attempt to use a military helicopter to pour water on the No. 3 reactor, the only one fueled with lethal plutonium, failed because of excessive radiation. There were conflicting reports that the reactor core had ruptured and was venting radioactive steam. Also, fresh fires engulfed the No. 4 reactor, the other main source of concern.

French Nuclear Safety Authority officials warned “the next 48 hours will be decisive” and noted “none of the solutions have worked.”

India and other countries sent airliners to evacuate citizens from Japan, even as two 6.0-magnitude aftershocks rocked Tokyo. The number of dead from Friday’s earthquake-tsunami has risen to over 12,000. In an usual move, Emperor Akihito addressed the country and said he was “deeply worried” about the nuclear crisis.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company has a twofold problem in the No 3 and No 4 reactors. Not only are they pumping in seawater to keep the reactor cores from overheating, they must also pour water into a reservoir where spent nuclear rods were being stored. In both cases, if the fuel rods overheat they will melt down and send an explosion of nuclear material into the air. The spent rods are a greater risk: unlike the core rods they are not enclosed in a containment vessel.

Japanese workers trying to control the runaway reactors were at one time forced to temporarily leave the complex when radiation levels soared.