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Japan nuclear crisis: Is massive water dump making any difference?

Japan pours tons of water into a reactor building where the water level in a cooling pool for spent fuel rods was dangerously low. The nuclear crisis is now rated as severe as Three Mile Island.

By Staff writer / March 18, 2011

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is pictured before helicopters dump water on the stricken reactor to cool overheated fuel rods inside the core in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Thursday morning, March 17.

Kyodo News/AP

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Washington

As Japan races against time to control its nuclear crisis, the cooling pools for the spent fuel rods at the Fukushima nuclear plant remain a source of major concern. On Friday water levels in at least one pool – housed in the Unit 3 reactor building – were dangerously low, according to Japanese authorities.

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Japanese workers poured more than 60 tons of water into the Unit 3 building on Friday, with an as yet unknown effect, said Japanese officials.

“Dealing with Unit 3 is our utmost priority,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

In addition, water in the Unit 4 cooling pool remained perilously close to the boiling point, at about 184 degrees Fahrenheit, according to temperature readings posted on the International Atomic Energy Agency website. Water in other pools was cooler, but readings were creeping upwards.

Japan nuclear crisis: Nuclear terminology 101

“Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has reported increasing temperatures in the spent fuel ponds at Units 5 and 6 since 14 March,” noted the IAEA on Friday.

Overall the situation at Fukushima remained grave but apparently stable on Friday. Japan raised the rating of the nuclear accident from four to five on an international scale, reflecting recognition of the severity of events that have already occurred. Level four accidents have local consequences, while level fives are judged to have wider repercussions. The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in the US was rated level five.

US officials on Friday stressed that they and the Japanese were focused equally on the damaged reactor cores as well as the spent fuel pools perched near them inside reactor buildings. The accident rating was raised at least in part because of the belief on the part of the Japanese that some exposed fuel rods inside reactors have experienced a partial meltdown.

Spent fuel rods more exposed

But the fuel pools now may pose a greater short-term danger, said experts in nuclear power. The reactors are housed within steel containment structures. The pools are just that – pools of water holding old fuel rods without any special safety equipment beyond that provided by cooling systems and the reactor buildings themselves.

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