Japan says it has finally brought leaking reactors at Fukushima under control in a move authorities say is a vital step on the long road to recovery, nine months after its nuclear crisis began.
Prime minister Yoshihiko Noda told a meeting of his nuclear taskforce that the crippled reactors “have reached a state of cold shutdown to the point where the accident is now under control”.
The government is hoping the announcement will bring relief to a disaster-weary public still haunted by the effects of the monster tsunami that tore into Japan in March.
Stabilisation of the reactors, whose molten cores spewed radioactive particles into the air and sea, marks the end of what the government has dubbed “step two” of the clean-up.
The initial success of step one – the stable cooling of reactors and used fuel pools – was announced in July.
“(Step Two) means the reactors have continued to be in a stable condition for some time, so we can consider that they are now under control,” said Takashi Sawada, vice chairman of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan.
Mr Sawada stressed the use of the term “cold shutdown” by the government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) did not indicate that all four disaster-hit reactors were now safe.
“But I think it’s OK to say the reactors have basically reached a stable condition of cooling,” he said, adding the amount of radiation leaking from the plant is now a fraction of what it was in March.
Chief cabinet secretary Osamu Fujimura added: “Even after completing step two, it does not mean an end (to the disaster). The (nuclear) taskforce will certainly continue coping with it.”
Tetsunari Iida, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, an anti-nuclear group, said some of the terminology was a little misleading.
“The terms ‘cold shutdown’ and ‘decommissioning’ are being used differently from the way they are supposed to be,” he said.
“I’m worried these words may be giving the impression that everything is going to be alright now.”
After the March disaster an exclusion zone around the plant was established with tens of thousands of people evacuated to avoid their being exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation.
Swathes of this zone remain polluted, with the clean-up proceeding slowly amid warnings that some towns could be uninhabitable for three decades.
TEPCO was caught short by the disaster, with its tsunami defence systems overwhelmed and back-up power generators knocked offline, leaving a small band of men – dubbed the Fukushima 50 – to try a series of ad-hoc solutions, including the use of seawater to cool the melted fuel rods.
Water used in the cooling process subsequently became a major headache for TEPCO, which had to release tonnes of the contaminated liquid into the Pacific, provoking the ire of fishermen both locally and in South Korea and China.