TOKYO (Reuters) - The operator of Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant moved closer to ending its radiation crisis on Monday with the start of a system to cool damaged reactors that could also help avoid dumping highly contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean.
The move was hailed as "a giant step forward" by Goshi Hosono, an adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
"This is critical in two aspects," Hosono told a news conference. "First, the system will solve the problem of contaminated water, which gave all sorts of worries to the world. Second, it will enable stable cooling of reactors."
Reactors at the plant, on the Pacific coast 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, went into meltdown after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out their cooling systems.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co is running out of space to store a huge amount of radioactive water that has accumulated during efforts to cool the reactors. It hopes the new system, which decontaminates water and re-circulates it to reduce reactor temperatures, will help achieve its goal of bringing the plant to stability by next January.
Thousands of residents remain in temporary housing after being evacuated from around the plant due to radiation leaks.
The water treatment system, using technology from French nuclear group Areva and U.S. company Kurion, is designed to handle 1,200 tons of radioactive water a day.
Tokyo Electric expects processing the estimated 250,000 tons of water that will have been contaminated by the time the crisis ends to cost about 53 billion yen ($660 million). More than 100,000 tons of highly radioactive water has already collected at the plant.
The utility dumped low-level radioactive water into the sea in April to make room to store more highly contaminated water, irking neighboring countries including China and South Korea.
($1 = 80.430 Japanese Yen)
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Michael Watson)