04/07/2011, 00.00
JAPAN
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Fukushima: nitrogen in reactor as the economy drops

Nitrogen, an inert gas, is injected to prevent an explosion from hydrogen build-up. Radioactivity drops in the sea, but the local fishing industry is at risk. The central bank plans to offer a trillion yen in loans. Car sales decline.

Tokyo (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Japan today started to pump 6,000 m3 of nitrogen into nuclear reactor 1 in Fukushima to prevent an explosion from the build-up of hydrogen gas.  An engineer with the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) said that nitrogen is injected to prevent explosions, even though the danger is low. There are concerns however, that hydrogen leaking the damaged reactor might accumulate inside the containment vessel and cause an explosion. After reactor 1, the same will be done to reactors 2 and 3 as safety measure. Engineers in reactor 2 were also able to plug a leak in the structure, whilst continuing to pump some 11,500 tonnes of low-level radioactive seawater into the sea so that the more highly contaminated water can be stored in waste buildings.

The level of radioactivity in the sea is also dropping, from 4,800 to 4,200 times over the legal limit. However, the water inside the reactors is 5,000,000 times the limit.

In the meantime, the country is trying to cope with the serious economic crisis. The Bank of Japan (BOJ) is expected to offer 1 trillion yen (US$ 12 billion) in one-year loans to businesses hurt by the nation’s record earthquake.

For the bank, small businesses are especially hard pressed because of damaged plants and the overall weakness of the banking system. Since the 11 March quake, the central bank has provided a record amount of money to the banks to ease financing and hold down the cost of borrowing.

The car industry is one of the worst affected. Multinationals like the Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan have had to cut production. Domestic car sales are down by 37 per cent in March, the biggest drop on record for the month. Manufacturing shrank at its fastest pace in a long time. This is creating problems for other carmakers that rely on parts from Nissan and Toyota.

Renault Samsung Motor, a South Korean subsidiary of Renault, on 28 March announced that it was cutting production in April by 20 per cent for lack of parts from Japan, especially from Nissan, but the same problem applies elsewhere. Carmakers from countries like China, South Korea and Malaysia might take advantage of the situation.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said that Japan’s GDP growth might be reduced by as much as 0.6 percentage point in the first quarter and up to 1.4 percentage points in the second in the aftermath of the quake.

However, there is some cautious optimism about the chances of a quick recovery because of the need to rebuild roads, bridges, ports and thousands of homes.

Before it adopts a broad plan, the government wants to see estimates about electrical power production (which is linked to the problems of the nuclear power plants), unemployment figures, housing problems and consumer prices, which should be made public on 28 April.

The food industry has also be hard hit, especially fishing, which is the fifth largest in the world. Tests on fish caught in waters near the Fukushima power plant have found levels of caesium above the allowed limit. India, the United States, China, Australia, Hong Kong, South Korea and other countries have banned or restricted imports of Japanese food products.

More than 206,000 buildings were destroyed, damaged or swept away, not to mention loads of vehicles, the National Police Agency said.

Debris and vehicles floating in the sea have become a hazard for navigation. The Japanese Coast Guard warned ships to stay about 60 nautical miles (110 kilometres) away from the Fukushima area, four times as far as the 30-kilometre exclusion zone introduced by the government because of concerns over radiation.

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