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Japan's Nuclear Watchdog Approves Fukushima Plant Decommissioning

Japan's nuclear regulator has approved the proposal to decommission the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant that may take at least 40 years.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) took eight months to examine the plan including specific procedures and safety measures before it allowed plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to go ahead with the decommissioning work, Japanese media reported.

NRA cleared the plan on Wednesday and directed TEPCO to properly deal with the treatment of contaminated water and removal of spent fuel from the crippled plant in Japan's northeast. The nuclear watchdog also urged the utility to take effective steps to check seepage of radioactive water from the plant and contaminated groundwater into the sea.

NRA plans to step up its monitoring of TEPCO's safety measures in the decommissioning procedure and order it to repeat safety steps until they are conducted properly, according to the NHK broadcaster.

The massive quake-triggered tsunami of March 11, 2011 knocked out the plant's cooling system leading to meltdown at its nuclear reactors. Large scale radiation leak contaminated water and food forcing the evacuation of more than 160,000 residents in a 30-kilometer radius of the plant. Most of the displaced are still living in makeshift shelters as rehabilitation is yet pick up even after more than two years of the accident, the biggest since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

TEPCO has been seeking public funds to provide compensation to the victims which it says will be more than $50 billion.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan denied criminal responsibility in his government's response to the Fukushima nuclear crisis. He gave a written statement to Tokyo prosecutors on Wednesday denying negligence in dealing with the accident at the plant.

Prosecutors have been investigating the case for more than a year following complaints from residents of Fukushima prefecture and others who accused Kan of professional negligence that resulted in injuries to workers at the plant and radiation exposure among local residents.

Some workers had been injured in a hydrogen explosion at the plant's No.1 reactor building on March 12, 2011, a day after the quake and tsunami damaged the plant. The complaints say that Kan's visit to the plant that morning hindered plant workers' efforts to contain the crisis. The resulting delay in a venting operation to ease pressure in the reactor containment vessel led to the explosion, they alleged.

Kan reportedly said in his statement that he visited the plant to press for a quick response and not to delay it. Criminal complaints have also been filed against former TEPCO executives and officials at Japan's former nuclear regulatory agency. The prosecutors are expected to take a final decision later this month on whether to press charges against the ex-Premier.

Japan will go without nuclear power in September for the first time in 14 months when the country's only two functioning reactors at the Ohi nuclear plant in Fukui prefecture are shut down for regular inspections.

The plant's operator Kansai Electric Power Company on Wednesday submitted a plan to the NRA seeking to halt the reactors which were the only nuclear facilities in Japan permitted to restart after the Fukushima accident. The country's 50-odd nuclear reactors were ordered to stop after the accident following widespread opposition to nuclear plants.

The NRA has issued stringent safety norms for the functioning of nuclear plants after lessons learned from the Fukushima accident.

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