Japan has made big strides toward stabilizing its tsunami-crippled nuclear plant but is now facing another crisis _ what to do with all the radioactive waste the disaster created.
Goshi Hosono, the country's nuclear crisis minister, said Friday that Japan has yet to come up with a comprehensive plan for how to dispose of the irradiated waste that has been accumulating since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Hosono gave the assessment after the government announced an $11.5 billion (900 billion yen) allocation to help the cash-strapped plant operator cover the massive cost of recovery without collapsing. Officials have rejected criticism that the allocation is a bail-out _ stressing that the money comes from a joint fund of plant operators, with a government contribution in zero-interest bonds that must be paid back.
The disaster, which killed nearly 20,000 people along Japan's northeastern coastline, touched off the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, generating meltdowns, fires and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station northeast of Tokyo.
Officials say that _ almost eight months later _ the plant has been restored to a relatively stable condition and is leaking far less radiation than it did in the early days of crisis. They hope to achieve a "cold shutdown" _ with each reactor's temperature below 212 Fahrenheit (100 C) _ by the end of the year.
But Hosono, in a response to a question from The AP, acknowledged Friday that the crisis has spawned a huge amount of irradiated waste that will require new technology and creative methods to dispose of safely.
"We still don't have a full picture of how to deal with the waste," he said. "It would require research and development that may take years. For instance, we still need to develop technology to compress the volume of the huge amounts of waste that we cannot move around."
Japan could be stuck with up to 45 million cubic meters of radioactive waste in Fukushima and several nearby prefectures (states), according to the environment ministry.
Hosono said Japan is not considering shipping out the waste for overseas processing.
The total amount of radiation released from the plant is still unknown, and the impact of chronic low-dose radiation exposures in and around Fukushima is a matter of scientific debate. More than 80,000 people evacuated from their homes, and a 12-mile (20-kilometer) no-go zone is still enforced around the plant.
Cleaning up the area and compensating residents is expected to cost trillions of yen (tens of billions of dollars). Hot spots of highly localized radiation have been reported hundreds of kilometers away, and Hosono said a task force has been set up to investigate them.
The fund payout of $11.5 billion (900 billion yen) announced Friday for Tokyo Electric Power Co. came after the plant operator agreed to a restructuring plan to cut more than 2.5 trillion yen ($32 billion) in costs over the next 10 years and reduce more than 7,000 employees.
TEPCO has been bitterly criticized for its lack of transparency and slow response to the crisis. The application process for residents and business owners to seek compensation has also been called extremely cumbersome.
The controversial fund is designed to help the operator meet its responsibilities without going bankrupt.
AP writer Eric Talmadge contributed to this report.