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Police race to find tsunami bodies

Japanese police are racing to find thousands of missing bodies before they completely decompose along a stretch of tsunami-devastated coast that has been largely off-limits because of a radiation-leaking nuclear plant.

Nearly a month after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake generated the tsunami along Japan's north-eastern coast, more than 15,000 people are still missing, but unpredictable tides of radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex have slowed the recovery process and often forced authorities to abandon the search, especially within a 12-mile evacuation zone around the plant.

Officials now say there is not much time left to find and identify the dead, and are ramping up their efforts.

"We have to find bodies now as they are decomposing," said Ryoichi Tsunoda, a police spokesman in Fukushima prefecture. "This is a race against time and against the threat of nuclear radiation."

More than 25,000 people are believed to have been killed, of whom 12,600 have been confirmed.

Recent progress at the plant - which the tsunami flooded - appears to have slowed the release of radiation. Early on Wednesday, technicians plugged a crack that had been gushing contaminated water into the Pacific. Radiation levels in waters off the coast have fallen dramatically since then, although contaminated water continues to pool throughout the complex, often thwarting work there.

A floating island storage facility - which officials hope will hold the radioactive water - has arrived at the port near Tokyo and will soon head to Fukushima.

After notching a rare victory, technicians have started pumping nitrogen into the chamber of the reactor to reduce the risk of a hydrogen explosion.

Three hydrogen blasts rocked the complex in the days immediately after the tsunami, which knocked out vital cooling systems. An internal report from March 26 by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned such explosions could occur again and recommended adding nitrogen. The gas will be injected into all three of the troubled reactors over the next six days.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power has been under intense pressure to get the crisis under control, and the company's president was taken to hospital last week amid reports he had had a breakdown. Masataka Shimizu spent eight days in the hospital with dizziness and high blood pressure, but is now back at work, according to spokesman Takashi Kurita.

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