“We are very confident that Japan will recover and will be a very strong economic and global player for years and decades to come,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan during a brief visit to Tokyo on Sunday. Ms Clinton’s visit was intended as a morale booster to the crucial U.S. ally even as TEPCO, the operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant announced a plan that would bring the crisis under control within six to nine months.

Mr Kan thanked Ms Clinton for US help following the crises triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11 that unleashed a massive tsunami, wrecking cooling and power systems at a nuclear plant that has been leaking radiation ever since.

“We will never forget and we will keep in our memory that the U.S. has provided such robust support,” said Kan, in comments suggesting the aid has helped soothe friction over an American military base in Okinawa that forced his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, to resign last year.

Meanwhile TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said, “We would like to see evacuees return to their homes as early as possible. ” Ms Clinton said Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, who she met with earlier, told her that Japan hoped for U.S. feedback on the plan.

“The constant efforts to respond to the situation at Fukushima have required intense analysis by Japanese, American and international experts, and we have been very supportive of what Japan is doing to take the appropriate steps,” Ms Clinton said.

Ms Clinton and Mr Matsumoto announced the formation of a public-private partnership to encourage investment in the recovery effort. Ms Clinton, who called Japan’s well-being a “bedrock priority,” also met with the Japanese emperor and empress.

The phased road map for ending the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, presented by Tokyo Electric Power Co. chairman Katsumata at a news conference, included plans to cover the damaged reactor buildings to contain the radiation and eventually remove the nuclear fuel.

“We sincerely apologize for causing troubles,” Katsumata said. “We are doing our utmost to prevent the crisis from further worsening.”

Frustrations have been mounting over TEPCO’s failure to resolve the nuclear crisis more than a month after a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11, knocking out power and cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex.

Katsumata, who was hammered by questions over his management responsibility, told reporters he was considering stepping down because of the crisis. “I feel very responsible,” he said.

Katsumata said he was not sure when the tens of thousands who had been forced to flee their homes because of the crisis could go back, but Trade Minister Banri Kaieda said some could return home within six to nine months.

In the first three months of the plan, the company hopes to steadily reduce the level of leaking radiation, Katsumata said. Three to six months after that, it hopes to get the release of radioactive materials firmly under control.

The company is focusing on cooling the reactors and spent fuel pools, decontaminating water that has been contaminated by radiation, mitigating the release of radiation into the atmosphere and soil, and measuring and reducing the amount of radiation affecting the evacuation area, he said.

Kaieda, the trade minister, said he hoped to see the process quickly “shift from the first aid phase to a systematic and stable phase.”

Government officials fanned out across the affected areas during the weekend seeking to explain evacuation decisions and calm nerves. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano met Sunday with the governor of Fukushima, who has vigorously protested the predicament the nuclear crisis poses for his prefecture.

TEPCO Vice President Sakae Muto said on Sunday the Unit 2 containment vessel at the plant was leaky and likely to have been damaged, but added that the spent fuel roads in the cooling pool in Unit 4 were confirmed not to have been damaged, which could have greatly complicated containment efforts.

Officials reported late Saturday that levels of radioactivity had again risen sharply in seawater near the plant, signalling the possibility of new leaks. Workers have been spraying massive amounts of water on the overheated reactors. Some of that water, contaminated with radiation, has leaked into the Pacific.

Regardless, plant workers on Saturday began dumping sandbags filled with sand and zeolite, a mineral that absorbs radioactive cesium, into the sea to combat the radiation leaks.

RELATED NEWS

Sense of fatigue in JapanApril 17, 2011

More In: International | News