More than two months after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami set off the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, officials say the risk of another explosion at the Fukushima plant has receded but each step towards gaining control has been matched by new setbacks.
From the start, the timetable for stabilising Fukushima has faced scepticism from experts and the Japanese public, but any changes to the original target were seen as too costly politically for the government.
Tokyo Electric Power Co, the plant’s operator, said it had dropped an initial plan to flood the reactors with water after last week’s discovery of a large leak in the main vessel of the plant’s No 1 reactor.
Instead, the operator said it would try to cool the reactors by circulating the radioactive water that has pooled throughout the Fukushima complex.
The new approach will involve costly steps to decontaminate tens of thousands of tonnes of water and the construction of a large storage area for the remaining low-level waste.
In a move that acknowledged a risk it previously downplayed, Tokyo Electric said it would step up its monitoring of radiation in nearby seawater and attempt to build an underground fence to prevent groundwater contamination.
The operator is still hoping to complete initial steps to limit the release of further radiation from the plant and to shut down its three unstable reactors by January 2012.
Vice president of Tokyo Electric Sakae Muto said: “We know that there are a lot of defining factors and risks, but we still want to complete the first steps by July and the remainder of the plan within nine months.”
He claimed it was impossible to estimate how much the clean-up would cost. “It’s something we will have to study over time.”
Prime minister Naoto Kan said the government would support those who had been displaced and lost work because of the nuclear crisis by building 15,200 temporary housing units by mid-August and stepping up health monitoring for nearby residents and workers.
The government is aiming to begin compensation payouts by July. Analysts claim the final cost for compensation could reach up to $130 billion (€91bn).