Japan nuclear operator aims for cold shutdown in 6-9 months

TOKYO Sun Apr 17, 2011 3:52am EDT

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese nuclear power plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) hopes it will be able to achieve cold shutdown of its crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant within six to nine months, the company said on Sunday.

The firm said the first step would be cooling the reactors and spent fuel to a stable level within three months, then bringing the reactors to cold shutdown in six to nine months. That would make the plant safe and stable and end the immediate crisis, now rated on a par with the world's worst nuclear accident, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

TEPCO, founded 60 years ago, added it later plans to cover the reactor buildings, damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11.

The latest data shows much more radiation leaked from the Daiichi plant in the early days of the crisis than first thought, prompting officials to rate it on a par with Chernobyl, although experts were quick to point out Japan's crisis was vastly different from Chernobyl in terms of radiation contamination.

TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said he was considering resigning over the accident, but that he couldn't say when.

"This is the biggest crisis since the founding of our company," Katsumata told a news conference at which the timetable was unveiled.

"Getting the nuclear plant under control, and the financial problems associated with that... How we can overcome these problems is a difficult matter."

The toll from Japan's triple catastrophe is rising. More than 13,000 people have been confirmed dead, and on Wednesday the government cut its outlook for the economy, in deflation for almost 15 years, for the first time in six months.

TEPCO and the government are under pressure to clarify when those who have had to evacuate the area around the damaged plant will be able to go home. Prime Minister Naoto Kan faced heavy criticism over comments, which he later denied making, suggesting the evacuees might not be able to return for 10 or 20 years.

"We would like to present objective facts to help the government make judgment and outlook on when those who have evacuated can come back home," TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata told a news conference at which the timeframe was unveiled.

Katsumata also said the company was taking steps to cope with the possibility of another big tsunami. The area has been rocked by large aftershocks since the magnitude 9.0 quake struck and triggered the devastating tsunami.

But he said he had no idea how much it would ultimately cost to stabilize the plant.

(Reporting by Taiga Uranaka; Writing by Elaine Lies and Linda Sieg; Editing by Daniel Magnowski and David Chance)