Japan to decommission stricken nuclear reactors

Tokyo, March 31, 2011 — Japan's Tokyo Electric Power Co. is to decommission four stricken reactors at the quake-hit Fukushima nuclear plant, the plant operator said.

TEPCO made the announcement after about three weeks of struggling to bring the damaged reactors 1 - 4 under control.

The fate of units 5 and 6, which were shut down safely, is unclear. However Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan was quoted as saying that those reactors should be decommissioned also.

Harmful levels of radioactivity have been detected in the area, in local produce and in ocean water. An estimated 13,000 tons of contaminated water has accumulated in trenches used for maintenance of the reactors.

An unknown quantity of contaminated water — a product of spraying the reactors to keep temperatures at manageable levels — was extracted from the basements of turbine buildings.

On March 31, the International Atomic Energy Agency said the Japanese government should widen the evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant. About 70,000 have already been evacuated from a 12-mile area around the plant, and about 130,000 people living 6 miles farther away have been advised to either leave or stay indoors.

TEPCO chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata spoke to reporters, saying that the company had not been able to cool the reactors, and pledged maximum efforts to stabilize them. He added that reactors 1-4 would eventually have to be shut down for good.

Katsumata said his company was preparing to compensate those suffering damage caused by radiation leaks.

According to news reports, TEPCO could face up to $133 billion in compensation claims if the disaster takes around two years to clean up. TEPCO has equity of about $35 billion.

There are reports that the Japanese government may decide to assist the plant operator with these costs by picking up some claims, as Japanese laws allow operators some exemptions from damages if the accident is caused by natural disasters of grave magnitude.

Katsumata also apologized for the inconvenience caused by the rolling blackouts imposed to cope with power shortages.

According to reports, TEPCO's president, Masataka Shimizu has temporarily stepped down from his office for health reasons after the strain of dealing with the disaster kept him absent from work and resulted in a hospital admission. Katsumata has taken control of the company for the time being.

TEPCO has reported that the removal of some of its nuclear generating capacity from the grid could mean a loss of about 20 percent of its capacity going into the spring and summer months. The utility continues to employ a system of rolling blackouts to meet power demand.

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