TOKYO -- Japan said yesterday that it will stabilize and shut down its stricken nuclear power plant in six to nine months, as planned, as residents evacuated two more towns around it amid concerns about accumulated radiation.
The government's timeline for stabilizing the plant was called into question last week after new data showed that the damage to one reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex was worse than expected. That assessment also prompted the government to acknowledge that the reactor's fuel rods had mostly melted soon after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the plant's cooling system.
Until all the reactors are safely shut down, they continue to leak radiation, though much less than in the early days of the disaster. Still, the sheer volume of contaminants spewed from the plant -- and their buildup in places outside the 12-mile evacuation zone -- persuaded the government to order residents to leave more towns in late April. Some of those evacuations began this weekend.
In a rare bit of good news, authorities said yesterday that their original timeline for stabilizing the reactors is achievable because the temperature inside the Unit 1 reactor core has fallen to nearly 212 Fahrenheit, a level considered safe and close to a cold shutdown.
"We believe we can stick to the current timeframe," said Goshi Hosono, the prime minister's aide and nuclear crisis task force director, referring to the timeline laid out in April of bringing the plant's three troubled reactors to a cold and stable shutdown in six to nine months.
"What's crucial is how we can proceed with cooling. Even though the cores had melted, they are somewhat kept cool," Hosono said.
The plant, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Co., is still leaking contaminated water -- just one of many problems facing workers who have been trying to bring it under control the last two months.