Fukushima clean-up could take up to 40 years

Japan’s government has released plans for the next clean-up phase of Fukushima, and says decommissioning the plant could take three or four decades

Fukushima, 240 km northeast of Tokyo, was destroyed on March 11 by an earthquake and tsunami which knocked out its cooling systems, triggering meltdowns, radiation leaks and mass evacuations. After months of efforts the government said last week the reactors are in a state of cold shutdown, signalling it was ready to move to a longer term phase to eventually decommission the plant.

In the next clean-up "road map" revealed on Wednesday, removal of spent fuel from the facility will begin within the next two years, the government said, with removal of melted fuel debris from the damaged reactors starting within 10 years. It said the decommission could take 30 to 40 years.

"The period of time it would take to decommission the plant should not have a direct bearing on when the evacuees will be allowed to return home," Trade Minister Yukio Edano said.

About 80,000 people were evacuated from within a 20 km radius of the plant soon after the March disaster but some of them may be allowed to return as early as next spring now the cold shutdown has been declared.

Edano said the total cost of the cleanup was unclear. "It's hard to estimate the cost of the plant cleanup at this stage. That's why cost estimates were not included in the medium- to long-term roadmap," Edano said.

"We may at some point draw a clearer cost estimate but it would be difficult to make estimates of something four decades down the line in just one or two years from now."

An official advisory panel has estimated it may cost about cost 1.15 trillion yen to decommission the plant, though some experts put it at 4 trillion yen or even more.

"The cost of the cleanup will be vast, and Tepco should naturally shoulder the cost," Edano said, referring to plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co.

The huge compensation payments and cleanup costs saddling Tepco could endanger its position as an independent firm as the stricken utility may need huge injections of public cash.

The government plans to take a stake of more than two-thirds in Tepco in a de facto nationalisation of the utility, the Yomiuri newspaper said on Wednesday.

The cleanup road map unveiled on Wednesday is for the Daiichi plant alone, with a massive cleanup also needed outside the complex if residents are to be allowed to go home. The Environment Ministry says about 2,400 square km of land around the plant may need to be decontaminated, an area roughly the size of Luxembourg.

Doubts also linger about whether the cold shutdown announcement was too hasty, and media voiced doubts over whether the reactors and their contamination have really been contained.

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