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VIENNA, Sept 19 (Reuters) - Japan aims to have the nuclear reactors at its crippled Fukushima plant in "cold shutdown" by the end of this year, slightly ahead of schedule, a top government official told the U.N. atomic agency on Monday.
Radiation leaks from the Fukushima plant, triggered by the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami, forced the evacuation of 80,000 people.
Japan's government has said cold shutdown, which means the spread of radiation from reactors has been suppressed, is a precondition for any return of evacuees to the restricted zone around the plant.
The government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) utility that operated the plant had earlier said they planned to achieve cold shutdown by January.
"We will move up the existing target period and endeavour to achieve this cold shutdown by the end of this year," Nuclear Disaster Minister Goshi Hosono said at the annual member state gathering of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)in Vienna.
IAEA head Yukiya Amano had said last week that the reactors at Fukushima were "essentially stable" six months after the world's worst nuclear disaster in a quarter of a century.
Fuel rods in three reactors at the complex started melting down when power and cooling functions failed after it was hit by the earthquake and tsunami.
Tepco this month edged a step closer to its goal of bringing the reactors to a state of cold shutdown as the temperature at the second of three damaged units fell below boiling point.
Cold shutdown occurs when water used to cool nuclear fuel rods remains below 100 degrees Celsius, preventing the fuel from reheating. (Reporting by Michael Shields and Fredrik Dahl,; Editing by Rosalind Russell)