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The World

March 13, 2011

Japan races to avert multiple nuclear meltdowns

(Continued)

KORIYAMA, Japan —

On Saturday, an explosion destroyed the walls of Unit 1 as operators desperately tried to prevent it from overheating and melting down.

Without power, and with its valves and pumps damaged by the tsunami, authorities resorted to drawing sea water mixed with boron in an attempt to cool the unit's overheated uranium fuel rods. Boron disrupts nuclear chain reactions.

The move likely renders the 40-year-old reactor unusable, said a foreign ministry official briefing reporters. Officials said the sea water will remain inside the unit, possibly for several months.

Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior policy adviser to the U.S. secretary of energy, told reporters that the sea water was a desperate measure.

"It's a Hail Mary pass," he said.

He said that the success of using sea water and boron to cool the reactor will depend on the volume and rate of their distribution. He said the dousing would need to continue nonstop for days.

Another key, he said, was the restoration of electrical power, so that normal cooling systems can operate.

Edano said the cooling operation at Unit 1 was going smoothly after the sea water was pumped in.

Operators released slightly radioactive air from Unit 3 on Sunday, while injecting water into it hoping to reduce pressure and temperature to prevent a possible meltdown, Edano said.

He said radiation levels just outside the plant briefly rose above legal limits, but since had declined significantly. Also, fuel rods were exposed briefly, he said, indicating that coolant water didn't cover the rods for some time. That would have contributed further to raising the temperature in the reactor vessel.

At an evacuation center in Koriyama, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the troubled reactors and 125 miles (190 kilometers) north of Tokyo, medical experts had checked about 1,500 people for radiation exposure in an emergency testing center, an official said.

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