Stricken Japan nuclear reactor past due date

TOKYO Sun Mar 13, 2011 8:31am EDT

TOKYO (Reuters) - A 40-year-old nuclear reactor facing a possible meltdown in northeastern Japan was originally scheduled to go out of commission in February but had its operating license extended another 10 years.

The earthquake-stricken No. 1 reactor operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi power plant is the utility's oldest atomic core.

It was originally scheduled to operate only 40 years.

But the Japanese government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency approved TEPCO's application to keep it hot after inspecting the facility, according to a statement on the Ministry of Trade Economy Industry's website.

Officials worked desperately to stop fuel rods in two damaged reactors from overheating after some controlled radiation leaks into the air to relieve pressure.

The fear is that if the fuel rods do not cool, they could melt the container that houses the core, or even explode, releasing radioactive material into the wind.

The government said there might have been a partial meltdown of the fuel rods at the No. 1 reactor. Engineers were pumping in seawater, trying to prevent the same happening at the No. 3 reactor.

Of Japan's 55 operational reactors, the No. 1 reactor is the nation's third oldest and one of the first built under a policy honed through oil shocks and burgeoning economic growth to give Japan more energy independence.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly. Editing by Jason Szep)