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Japan tries to cool nuclear reactor

ZAO, Japan (AP) — Japanese military helicopters dumped loads of seawater onto a stricken nuclear reactor Thursday, trying to avoid full meltdowns as plant operators said they were close to finishing a new power line that could restore cooling systems and ease the crisis.

U.S. officials in Washington, meanwhile, warned that the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in northeastern Japan may be on the verge of spewing more radioactive material because water was gone from a storage pool for spent nuclear fuel rods.

The troubles at several of the plant’s reactors were set off when last week’s earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and ruined backup generators needed for their cooling systems, adding a major nuclear crisis for Japan as it dealt with twin natural disasters that killed more than 10,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

A Japanese military CH-47 Chinook helicopter began dumping seawater on the damaged reactor of Unit 3 at the Fukushima complex at 9:48 a.m., said defense ministry spokeswoman Kazumi Toyama. The aircraft dumped at least four loads on the reactor, though much of the water appeared to be dispersed in the air.

The dumping was intended both to help cool the reactor and to replenish water in a pool holding spent fuel rods, Toyama said. The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said earlier that the pool was nearly empty, which might cause the rods to overheat.

The comments from U.S. officials indicated there were similar problems at another unit of the Dai-ichi complex.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said at a congressional hearing in Washington that all the water was gone from a separate spent fuel pool at the plant’s Unit 4. Japanese officials expressed similar worries about that unit, but that it was impossible to be sure of its status.

Emergency workers were forced to retreat from the plant Wednesday when radiation levels soared, losing precious time. They resumed work after radiation levels dropped, but much of the monitoring equipment in the plant is inoperable, complicating efforts to assess the situation.

“We are afraid that the water level at unit 4 is the lowest,” said Hikaru Kuroda, facilities management official at Tokyo Electric Power Co. But he added, “Because we cannot get near it, the only way to monitor the situation is visually from far away.”

Japanese officials raised hopes of easing the crisis, saying early Thursday that they may be close to bringing power back to the plant and restoring the reactors’ cooling systems.

The new power line would revive electric-powered pumps, allowing the company to control the rising temperatures and pressure that have led to at least partial meltdowns in three reactors. The company is also trying to repair its existing disabled power line.

Tokyo Electric Power spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said the new power line to the plant is almost finished and that officials plan to try it “as soon as possible,” but he could not say exactly when.

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