Japan stops highly radioactive leak into Pacific

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TOKYO (AP) — Workers stopped a highly radioactive leak into the Pacific Ocean off Japan‘s flooded nuclear complex Wednesday, but with the plant far from stabilized, engineers prepared an injection of nitrogen to deter any new hydrogen explosions.

Nitrogen can prevent highly combustible hydrogen from exploding. There have already been three explosions at the compound in the early days of the crisis, which was set in motion March 11 when the reactors’ cooling systems were crippled by Japan‘s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami.

Nuclear officials said there was no immediate threat of more explosions, but the nitrogen plans were an indication of the serious remaining challenges in stabilizing reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and halting the coastal radiation leaks that have cast a shadow on northeastern Japanese fisheries.

Nitrogen normally is present inside the containment vessel that surrounds the reactor core. Technicians will start pumping more in as early as Wednesday evening, said Junichi Matsumoto, a spokesman for the plant operator. They will start with Unit 1, where pressure and temperatures are highest.

“The nitrogen injection is being considered a precaution,” said spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan‘s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Workers have suffered near-daily setbacks in their race to cool the plant’s reactors since they were slammed by the tsunami, which also destroyed hundreds of miles of coastline and killed as many as 25,000 people.

People within 12 miles of the plant have been evacuated, and the government said Wednesday it might consider expanding that zone. That does not necessarily mean radiation from the plant is getting worse. The effects of radiation are determined by both the strength of the dose and the length of exposure, so the concern is that people farther away might start being affected as the crisis drags on.

“I would imagine residents in areas facing a possibility for long-term exposure are extremely worried,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. “We are currently consulting with experts so that we can come up with a clear safety standard.”

Mr. Edano did not say how far the zone might be expanded or how many people that might affect. Tens of thousands of people have been living in shelters since the tsunami because they lost their homes or are in the evacuation zone or both.

But there was a rare bit of good news Wednesday when workers finally halted the leak of highly contaminated water into the ocean, which has raised concerns about the safety of seafood.

Officials have said the runoff would dissipate quickly in the vast Pacific, but the mere suggestion that fish from the country that gave the world sushi could be at any risk stirred worries throughout the fishing industry.

In the coastal town of Ofunato, Takeyoshi Chiba, who runs the town’s wholesale market, was warily watching the developments at the plant, about 120 miles down the coast.

“There is a chance that the water from Fukushima will come here,” he said, explaining that fishermen in the area still haven’t managed to get out to sea again after the tsunami destroyed nearly all of their boats. “If Tokyo decides to ban purchases from here, we’re out of business.”

After radiation in waters near the plant was measured at several million times the legal limit and elevated levels were found in some fish, the government on Monday set its first standard on acceptable levels of radiation in seafood.

“Right now, just because the leak has stopped, we are not relieved yet,” Mr. Edano said. “We are checking whether the leak has completely stopped or whether there may be other leaks.”

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