REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– Japan declared Friday that the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has reached a condition that suggests a critical stable state known as a “cold shutdown” and has ceased to leak substantial amounts of radiation.
The development comes nine months after an earthquake-generated tsunami struck the coastal plant March 11, knocking out its cooling system and eventually causing a series of meltdowns.
The reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant have reached a state of cold shutdown, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told Cabinet members in an announcement intended to reassure Japan and the rest of the world that the nation is moving beyond its nuclear nightmare.
But critics say that continuing harm is being caused by the plant, stricken by what many call the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and that it will still take decades to fully decommission the facility.
Officials had predicted they would reach the cold shutdown state by early 2012, and Tokyo’s support of the claim by the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., that the reactors have reached a crucial point is one more step toward finally encasing the plant in concrete as a precaution.
A 12-mile off-limits zone around the plant is expected to remain in effect for years, Japanese authorities acknowledge.
Officials say they can now move forward and begin reassessing dangers at evacuations areas around the plant. In the days following the March disaster, some 80,000 residents were evacuated from communities around the plant after the reactors spewed radioactivity into the air, sea and soil.
Still, Friday’s announcement was carefully worded, with officials suggesting that the plant had reached cold shutdown “conditions,” since the utility cannot measure temperatures of melted fuel in damaged reactors as precisely as they can in normal facilities.
Facility operators conceded that engineers will not be able to remove spent fuel from the three worst-hit reactors for 10 years, but say they may begin removing fuel from storage pools within the next two years.
Engineers said the plant’s more stable state came after the establishment of an improvised cooling system to circulate water through the damaged reactors. They have also set up a system to decontaminate radioactive water from the process.
But earlier this month, plant operators announced that 45 tons of highly radioactive water had leaked from that filtration system. Officials later acknowledged that some of that water had reached the Pacific Ocean.
Critics say the leak contradicted assurances that officials have limited the environmental damage at the plant 220 miles northeast of Tokyo. The radiation in the water from the most recent leak measured up to 322 times higher than government safety limits for various types of cesium.
Experts also worried about the detection of strontium, which they said remains in the human body for much longer than cesium and therefore presents a graver health hazard. Some independent sources have estimated that 80 gallons or more of strontium-tainted water has run into the ocean, twice the amount claimed by plant operators.
[Updated at 6:36 a.m., Dec. 16: Environmentalists blasted the government's claims of progress at Fukushima.
“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," said a statement by the group Greenpeace. "Instead of creating a PR smokescreen to deflect attention away from the ongoing failure to help people living with the consequences of the disaster, the government’s priority should be to ensure public safety and begin the shutdown of all nuclear reactors in Japan.”]
And there are continuing signs that the fallout is entering the food system. A Japanese baby food manufacturer this month announced the recall of 400,000 cans of infant formula that reportedly contained traces of radioactive cesium connected to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown.
Although radiation has been detected in food in Japan, including vegetables and fish, the finding marked the first time that poisonous isotopes have been found in baby formula.
The earthquake and tsunami left more than 20,000 either dead or missing along Japan’s northeast coast.
-- John M. Glionna