Japan on Tuesday said plans to end the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant by January next year are on schedule, with crippled reactors being "stably" cooled and radiation levels reduced.
The government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said they remain on target to bring reactors there to a safe state of cold shutdown by January at the latest now that a water circulation system has been established.
TEPCO said it had met three-month goals that were part of the "road map" to eventually bring the facility to a safe condition and is ready to now focus on reducing radiation levels further as part of the map's second stage.
Pointing to a long clean-up process however, it said it also aimed to start removing spent fuel within three years of reaching cold shutdown -- or when reactor water temperatures are below 100 degrees Celsius (212 Fahrenheit), stopping the release of radioactive steam.
"We are now at the point to enter the second step," Prime Minister Naoto Kan told parliament. "We are starting to see a tremendously critical condition heading towards a certain level of settlement".
Efforts to stabilize the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl 25 years ago have continued since a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami on March 11, sparking reactor meltdowns at the plant and spewing radiation into the environment.
A key challenge was how to deal with massive amounts of highly radioactive water that accumulated as a result of emergency efforts to inject water into reactors to cool melting fuel inside.
Workers have installed systems that remove radioactive substances from the polluted water before recycling the decontaminated liquid to cool reactors one to three, although the process was troubled by further leaks and other setbacks.
"The accident has not yet come to an end, but the efforts to stabilize it has made progress," Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda told reporters.
The government said radiation levels around the plant, which lies 220 kilometers from Tokyo, had fallen to "two-millionth" of the peak recorded March 15.
That translates into an average annual radiation dosage of 1.7 millisieverts at the boundary of the plant's grounds, according to the government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
Tens of thousands of people remain evacuated from homes, businesses and farms in a 20-kilometer no-go zone around the plant.
Amid criticism it has done little to safeguard local residents from radiation risks, the government pledged to earmark 78.2 billion yen for a health program to monitor radiation exposure of all Fukushima residents.© Agence France-Presse