11/01/2011 11:34 EDT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 EST

New trouble reported at Japan nuclear plant

TOKYO - Officials at the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant detected a radioactive gas associated with fission Wednesday that could indicate a new problem at one of its reactors. They began injecting boric acid as a precautionary measure.

Gas from inside the reactor indicated the presence of radioactive xenon, which could be the byproduct of unexpected nuclear fission. The boric acid — used to neutralize nuclear reactions — was being injected through a cooling pipe as a countermeasure.

The Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, said there was no rise in the reactor's temperature, pressure or radiation levels. The company said the radioactive materials inside the reactor had not reached criticality — the point when nuclear reactions are self-sustaining — and the detection of the xenon would have no major impact on their efforts to keep the reactor cool and stable.

"We have confirmed that the reactor is stable and we don't believe this will have any impact on our future work," said TEPCO spokesman Osamu Yokokura. He said no radiation leaks outside the plant were detected.

Hiroyuki Imari, a spokesman with the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency, said the detection of the gas was not believed to indicate a major problem, but its cause was being investigated.

The plant was the site of the worst nuclear disaster since Chornobyl in 1986.

A 12-mile (20-kilometre) exclusion zone has been in effect since the earthquake and tsunami on March 11 crippled the facility north of Tokyo, sending three of its reactors into meltdowns, touching off fires and triggering several explosions.

The latest setback comes as TEPCO had reported significant progress toward stabilizing the plant. TEPCO says it has essentially reached a "cold shutdown" of the plant, meaning the temperatures at the reactors are constant and under control.

Even so, a Japanese government panel says it will take at least 30 years to safely decomission the facility.