Japan’s government says it’s on track with efforts to take control of the Fukushima plant but a final clean-up could take years.
The update on progress to shut down six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant comes four months after a massive earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems at the complex and triggered a series of core meltdowns and explosions.
"We still don't have a schedule for the work to decommission this plant, and that's planning that we have to begin now," Goshi Hosono, the minister in charge of the government's response to the nuclear crisis, said.
The monthly updates on Fukushima have become a channel for the embattled government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan to summarise the painstaking progress at the plant 240 km north of Tokyo in the face of deep public frustration and persistent health concerns, especially in Fukushima.
Adding to consumer worries, Tokyo ordered the suspension of all shipments of beef cattle from Fukushima after discovering the cattle fed rice straw with high levels of radioactive cesium had been shipped across the country.
Officials said the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, had cleared the first hurdle in its efforts to bring the plant under control by setting up an improvised cooling system to circulate water to cool three badly damaged reactors.
But it could take until 2015 to start removing uranium fuel rods from storage pools at the reactors, including No. 4 reactor which had been heavily loaded with stored fuel at the time of the disaster in March, they added.
Officials said they still expected it could take another six months to bring Fukushima's reactors to a state of "cold shutdown", where the uranium at the core is no longer capable of boiling off the water used as a coolant. If work moves quickly, the plant could be under control with little risk from another loss of power within three months, they added.
The government also said 80,000 residents evacuated from around the plant due to radiation risks might have to wait until January to know when or whether they could return home.
"During the time that I've been involved in this effort, we've encountered every kind of difficulty, so I don't think we have room to be optimistic," Hosono said. "By the same token, we've managed to overcome the trouble we've faced so I don't want to be pessimistic, either."
Once the plant is in a stable shutdown, the focus would then shift to cleaning up and removing fuel from the site. Officials have scrapped an early plan to fit several of the reactors with massive polyester covers to contain radioactive dust, saying it would be better to focus on removing existing radioactive debris and getting spent fuel rods safely out of those reactors.
A full decommissioning of the reactors would take more than 10 years, officials have said.
Hosono said the government would take over the monitoring of radiation exposure of thousands of workers at Fukushima from the plant operator and fund a long-term system for checking the health of nearby residents and children.
To assure a jittery public, Japan's nuclear watchdog is introducing safety tests to gauge reactors' capability to respond to a Fukushima-style disaster, but the move sparked concerns about possible power shortages into 2012, which could crimp Japan's industrial output and economic growth.
Kan, who has promised to step down but not specified when, has called for an overhaul of Japan's energy policy and said the country will reduce its reliance on nuclear power.