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Radiation, rusty metal seen in tsunami-hit reactor

Japan Tsunami Wreckage

Japanese tsunami - Japan (Adam Housley)

TOKYO-- The first look inside one of Japan's tsunami-hit nuclear reactors showed radiation, steam and rusty metal surfaces scarred by 10 months' exposure to high temperatures and humidity.

The steam-blurred photos taken by remote control Thursday found none of the reactor's melted fuel but confirmed stable reactor temperature and showed no major damage or ruptures caused by the earthquake last March, said Junichi Matsumoto, spokesman for the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Radiation appeared on the images as static, or electronic interference with the equipment being used. Some parts that were photographed inside the reactor's containment vessel are not yet identifiable.

The photos also showed inner wall of the container heavily deteriorated after 10 months of exposure to high temperature and humidity, Matsumoto said.

TEPCO workers inserted the endoscope -- an industrial version of the kind of endoscope doctors use -- through a hole in the beaker-shaped container at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant's No. 2 reactor, hoping the first look inside since the crisis would help them better assess reactor conditions and make repairs.

High temperatures and radiation leaks had prevented the close-up view until now. Results of the 70-minute operation were mixed.

"Given the harsh environment that we had to operate, we did quite well. It's a first step," Matsumoto said. "But we could not spot any signs of fuel, unfortunately."

He said it would take more time and a better technology to get to the melted fuel, most of which has fallen straight down into the area that the endoscope could not reach. TEPCO hopes to use the endoscope to look inside the two other reactors that had meltdowns but that also would require customization of the equipment and further reduction of radiation levels.

Better assessment will help workers know how best to plug holes and cracks in the containment vessel -- a protective chamber outside the core -- to contain radiation leaks and gradually work toward dismantling the reactors.

Three of six reactors at the Fukushima plant melted down after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the plant's cooling systems and set off the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

TEPCO and nuclear officials have said that melted fuel probably fell to the bottom of the core in each unit, most likely breaching the bottom of the core and falling into the primary containment vessel, some dropping to its concrete floor.

Experts have said those are simulation results and that exact location and condition of the fuel could not be known until they have a first-hand observation inside.

The probe Thursday successfully recorded the temperature inside the containment vessel at 112 F, confirming it stayed below the boiling point and qualifying a "cold shutdown state," the stable condition that the government had declared in December despite skepticism from experts.

The probe failed to find the water surface, which indicate the water sits at lower-than-expected levels inside the primary containment vessel and questions the accuracy of the current water monitors, Matsumoto said.

The government has said that it would take 40 years until the Fukushima plant is fully decommissioned.

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