Japan's nuclear crisis growing


Cooler King
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Full or partial meltdowns possible at some reactors; radioactive steam releases might go on for months

A second hydrogen explosion rocked Japan's seaside Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex today, this time destroying an outer building at unit 3 and injuring six workers. But officials asserted that the containment structures of the 37-year-old reactor survived.

It was not immediately clear how much - if any - radiation had been released.

Japanese officials had warned earlier in the weekend that an explosion was possible as the plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., fought to regain control of the reactor, whose normal cooling system was disrupted by Friday's earthquake and subsequent power outages.

Like the Saturday explosion at unit 1, this blast took place after a build-up of hydrogen was vented by the reactor. The hydrogen was most likely produced by the exposure of the reactor's fuel rods to hot steam.

In normal conditions, the fuel rods would be covered and cooled by water.

The explosion took place as Tokyo Electric entered Day 4 of its battle against a cascade of failures at its two Fukushima nuclear complexes, using fire pumps to inject tens of thousands of gallons of seawater into two reactors to contain partial meltdowns of ultrahot fuel rods.

The tactic produced high pressures and vapors that the company vented into its containment structures and then into the air, raising concerns about radioactivity levels in the surrounding area where 180,000 people already have been evacuated.

The radioactive releases of steam from the plants could go on for months.

But the limited vapor emissions were seen as far less dire than a partial or complete meltdown in the two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station that would occur if the rods blazed their way through the reactor's layers of steel and concrete walls.

The nuclear crisis played out as nearly 1,600 people were confirmed dead and thousands more were missing after Friday's earthquake and resulting tsunami, according to officials.
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