WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A "significant milestone" is at hand for cleanup of Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, with spent nuclear fuel removal likely to start on schedule, the U.S. Energy Secretary said on Friday after a visit to the site.
"It appears that spent nuclear fuel will begin to be removed from Unit 4 as scheduled in mid-November," Ernest Moniz said in a statement. "This will be significant milestone for Tepco and the Japanese government and in the process of decommissioning the site."
Moniz, a nuclear physicist, is the highest ranking U.S. official to visit the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station since a nuclear disaster in March 2011 that followed an earthquake and tsunami.
The cleanup and decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi, which had been operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co, or Tepco, is expected to take decades.
"The United States stands ready to continue assisting our partners in this daunting yet indispensable task," Moniz said, adding that Japan is charting a "sovereign path" on how to handle the cleanup.
The two countries in 2012 created a bilateral commission to strengthen engagement on civil nuclear issues.
The commission will hold its second meeting in Washington on Monday, with an "exchange of opinions" on Fukushima on the agenda.
(Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)