Japan promises `safer nuclear future`

Japan`s minister said the government and TEPCO hoped to achieve a stable cold shutdown by the end of the year.

Tokyo: Japan`s minister handling the Fukushima crisis told a gathering of the UN atomic agency on Monday his country would have a "safer" future, after a massive anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo.

"I am convinced we will definitely overcome this challenge and find a prosperous, safer nuclear future," Goshi Hosono said at the 151-nation International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA)`s general conference in Vienna.

He said Japan would benefit "from the lessons learned" from the March disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, when an earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems, releasing radiation as reactors suffered meltdown.

His comments came after tens of thousands of people -- organisers said 60,000 -- held one of the biggest anti-nuclear demonstrations in Tokyo since what was the world`s worst accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

Hosono said in Vienna he was "aware that many individuals are critical regarding nuclear power ... I think it is important that we are mindful of various views".

He added: "In Japan there is a kind of consensus that we would like to reduce the dependency on nuclear power. But the speed and the method by which that would be achieved, to attain such a target has yet to be identified."

Six months after the massive earthquake and tsunami that caused the disaster at the four-decades-old plant, emergency crews are still struggling to stop radiation seeping out.

Hosono said the government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) hoped to achieve a stable "cold shutdown" by the end of the year.

But he told a later news conference that this stage was a "separate issue" from that of allowing the thousands of people evacuated from around Fukushima to return home.

"There are a number of measures needed ... and this will take some time," he told reporters through an interpreter.

Hosono said the Japanese government last week submitted to the IAEA a new in-depth report on the crisis, which was presented by Japanese officials to the agency on Monday.

This report, following a first one in June, said that "stable progress" has been made at the stricken plant, with the amount of radioactive material released and radiation exposure to workers "significantly reduced".

It also gave an update on what was being done to decontaminate the surrounding area, as well as plans for what to do with the plant once the reactors have been stabilised.

The IAEA was expected to endorse at its gathering, which runs until Friday, a safety "action plan" drawn up by agency chief Yukiya Amano, himself Japanese, in the wake of the Fukushima accident.

Critics say the 12-point plan falls well short of promises made in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, which sparked worries worldwide about nuclear power, and that the steps it suggests are voluntary.

Many of Amano`s original proposals, such as mandatory "peer reviews" of reactors by foreign experts and 10 percent of the planet`s plants being inspected in the next three years, were watered down.

France, for example, wanted the action plan to be tougher, and Energy Minister Eric Besson called on Monday at the IAEA for peer reviews to become standard practice worldwide by mid-2012, and for their results to be published.

Last week, the world`s nuclear power plant exporters announced in Washington a first-ever code of conduct which they hope will raise safety standards, prevent proliferation and enhance environmental protection.

But the commitments by firms such as France`s Areva, US-Japanese firm GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and US giant Westinghouse, three years in the making, are not legally binding.

Bureau Report

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