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Nine months to end Japan's nuclear crisis, plant owner estimates

18 April 2011

Engineers will need six to nine months to bring the damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant to heel, the plant's owners said recently in their first public timetable for ending the crisis.

Tepco boss Tsunehisa Katsumata, third from left, says it could take nine months for reactors to achieve "cold" shutdown.
Tepco boss Tsunehisa Katsumata, third from left, says it could take nine months for reactors to achieve "cold" shutdown.

It will take three months to reduce the levels of radioactivity in the plant and restore normal cooling systems in the reactors and spent fuel pools, the Tokyo Electric Power Company announced. Another three to six months will be needed before the reactors are fully shut down and new shells are built around their damaged housings, the company said.

Meanwhile, Japan's government said it would try to decontaminate "the widest possible area" in that period before deciding whether the tens of thousands who have been forced to flee their homes will be allowed to return, said Goshi Hosono, an adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. "We have to go step by step in order to resolve the problems one by one," Hosono said.

The timetable was released five days after Kan called for Tokyo Electric to show Japanese a pathway to ending the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. A day earlier, the company would not comment on an industry group's estimate that restoring normal cooling would take two to three months - a period comparable to the first stage of Sunday's plan. Tokyo Electric spokesman Hiro Hasegawa acknowledged that public pressure helped speed the company's decision to release a plan and warned that the outline remained tentative - "but we will do our best" to stick to it, he said.

Because of the still-unknown volume of highly irradiated water flooding the basements of units 1-3, where the cooling equipment is normally housed, the utility is working toward building a separate cooling system. That system would remove heat from the water being pumped through the reactors and decontaminate it before circulating it back through them.
Currently, engineers have improvised by pumping roughly 170 metric tons (45,000 gallons) of water a day into each reactor, an unknown portion of which is leaking out. The leaking water comes out full of such particles as radioactive iodine and cesium, the byproducts of the reactors. At the plant recently, workers used remote-controlled robots to record radiation, water and temperature data in the building that houses reactor No. 3. Photos released by the utility showed the devices, provided by the U.S. company iRobot, opening the inner door to the reactor and entering the darkened building. "Everything is a high-radiation area inside the reactor buildings," Hasegawa told reporters at a briefing for international news outlets - another first for a company that has been sharply criticised for its handling of the crisis. Meanwhile, Tokyo Electric Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata fended off nearly a dozen questions from Japanese reporters about whether he or other top executives planned to resign as a result of the disaster. "At this point, we do not have any decisions or discussions about resigning, as all our efforts is towards resolving the situation," Katsumata said. "We are not sure if resigning is the best way to take the responsibility or to stay in position to resolve the situation." Any decisions may wait until the company's general shareholders meeting in June, he said.

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