* Damaged plant's reactors "stable", PM says
* Safe dismantling of the plant could take decades
* Government to set out road map for next steps
By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Shinichi Saoshiro
TOKYO, Dec 16 Japan declared its
tsunami-stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant to be in cold
shutdown on Friday, taking a major step to resolving the world's
worst nuclear crisis in 25 years but some critics questioned
whether the plant was really under control.
The Fukushima Daiichi plant, 240 km (150 miles) northeast of
Tokyo, was wrecked on March 11 by a huge earthquake and a
towering tsunami which knocked out its cooling systems,
triggering meltdowns, radiation leaks and mass evacuations.
In making the much-anticipated announcement, Prime Minister
Yoshihiko Noda tried to draw a line under the most acute phase
of the crisis and highlighted the next challenges: the clean-up
and the safe dismantling of the plant, something the government
says may take more than 30 years.
"The reactors have reached a state of cold shutdown," Noda
told a government nuclear emergency response meeting.
"A stable condition has been achieved," he added, noting
radiation levels at the boundary of the plant could now be kept
at low levels, even in the event of "unforeseeable incidents."
A cold shutdown is when water used to cool nuclear fuel rods
remains below boiling point, preventing the fuel from reheating.
One of the chief aims of the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric
Power (Tepco), had been to bring the reactors to that
state by the year-end.
The declaration of a cold shutdown could have repercussions
well beyond the plant. It is a government pre-condition for
allowing about 80,000 residents evacuated from within a 20 km
(12 mile) radius of the plant to go home.
Both Noda and his environment and nuclear crisis minister
Goshi Hosono said that while the government still faced huge
challenges, the situation at the plant was under control.
That provoked an angry response from senior local officials,
Greenpeace and some reporters even as the Vienna-based U.N.
nuclear agency welcomed "significant progress" at the plant.
"We hope that this will be a fresh step towards going back
home but it does not change the fact that the path to bringing
the crisis under control is long and tough," Fukushima governor
Yuhei Sato said, according to the Asahi newspaper website.
Greenpeace dismissed the announcement as a publicity stunt.
"By triumphantly declaring a cold shutdown, the Japanese
authorities are clearly anxious to give the impression that the
crisis has come to an end, which is clearly not the case,"
Greenpeace Japan said in a statement.
Hosono acknowledged that there were some areas where it
would be difficult to bring people back and said there could be
small difficulties here and there, but he told a briefing: "I
believe there will be absolutely no situation in which problems
escalate and nearby residents are forced to evacuate."
The water temperature in all three of the affected reactors
fell below boiling point by September, but Tepco had said it
would declare a state of cold shutdown only once it was
satisfied that the temperatures and the amount of radiation
emitted from the plant remained stable.
Jonathan Cobb, an expert at the British-based World Nuclear
Association, said the authorities had been conservative in
choosing the timing of the announcement.
"The government has delayed declaration of cold shutdown
conditions, one reason being to ensure that the situation at the
plant was stable," Cobb said, adding that the evacuation zone
should get progressively smaller as more of it was
Kazuhiko Kudo, professor of nuclear engineering at Kyushu
University, said authorities needed to determine exactly the
status of melted fuel inside the reactors and stabilise a
makeshift cooling system, which handles the tens of thousands of
tonnes of contaminated water accumulated on-site.
HUGE COSTS, ANXIETY
The government and Tepco will aim to begin removing the
undamaged nuclear rods from the plant's spent fuel pools next
year. However, retrieval of fuel that melted down in their
reactors may not begin for another decade.
The enormous cost of the cleanup and compensating the
victims has drained Tepco financially. The government may inject
about $13 billion into the company as early as next summer in a
de facto nationalisation, sources told Reuters last week.
An official advisory panel estimates Tepco may have to pay
about 4.5 trillion yen ($57 billion) in compensation in the
first two years after the nuclear crisis, and that it will cost
1.15 trillion yen to decommission the plant, though some experts
put it at 4 trillion yen ($51 billion) or even more.
Japan also faces a massive cleanup task outside the east
coast plant if residents are to be allowed to go home. The
Environment Ministry says about 2,400 square km (930 square
miles) of land around the plant may need to be decontaminated,
an area roughly the size of Luxembourg.
The crisis shook the public's faith in nuclear energy and
Japan is now reviewing an earlier plan to raise the proportion
of electricity generated from nuclear power to 50 percent by
2030 from 30 percent in 2010.
Japan may not immediately walk away from nuclear power, but
few doubt that nuclear power will play a lesser role in future.
Living in fear of radiation is part of life for residents
both near and far from the plant. Cases of excessive radiation
in vegetables, tea, milk, seafood and water have stoked anxiety
despite assurances from public officials that the levels
detected are not dangerous.
Chernobyl's experience shows that anxiety is likely to
persist for years, with residents living near the former Soviet
plant still regularly checking produce for radiation before
consuming it 25 years after the disaster.