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Japan plant operator begins pumping water

TOKYO -- The operator of Japan's crippled nuclear plant began pumping highly radioactive water out of the basement of one of its buildings to a makeshift storage area yesterday in a crucial step toward easing the nuclear crisis.

Removing about 6.6 million gallons of contaminated water that has collected in the basement of a turbine building at Unit 2 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant will help allow access for workers trying to restore vital cooling systems that were knocked out in the March 11 tsunami.

It is but one of many steps in a lengthy process to resolve the crisis. Tokyo Electric Power Co. has projected that it would take up to nine months to reach a cold shutdown of the plant. But government officials acknowledge that setbacks could slow the timeline.

The water will be removed in stages, with the first third of it to be handled in the coming 20 days, said Hidehiko Nishi-yama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. In all, there are about 18.5 million gallons of contaminated water to be removed from the plant's reactor and turbine buildings and nearby trenches, and the process could take months.

TEPCO is taking the water to a storage building that was flooded during the tsunami with lightly contaminated water that was pumped into the ocean later to make room for the highly contaminated water.

The operator plans to use technology developed by French nuclear engineering giant Areva to reduce radioactivity and remove salt from the contaminated water so it can be reused to cool the plant's reactors, Nishiyama said, adding that the process would take "several months."

Once the contaminated water is safely removed and radioactivity levels decline, workers can begin repairing the cooling systems for the reactors of Units 1, 2 and 3. Workers must also restore cooling functions at the plant's six spent fuel pools and a joint pool for all six units.

TEPCO has offered residents forced to evacuate homes around the plant about $12,000 per household as interim compensation. People elsewhere in the disaster zone who lost houses to the tsunami -- which also left more than 27,000 dead or missing -- say help has been slow to materialize.

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