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(Reuters) – Japanese nuclear power plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) hopes it will be able to achieve cold shutdown of its crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant within six to nine months, the company said on Sunday.

The firm said the first step would be cooling the reactors and spent fuel to a stable level within three months, then bringing the reactors to cold shutdown in six to nine months. That would make the plant safe and stable and end the immediate crisis, now rated on a par with the world’s worst nuclear accident, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

TEPCO, founded 60 years ago, added it later plans to cover the reactor buildings, damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11.

The latest data shows much more radiation leaked from the Daiichi plant in the early days of the crisis than first thought, prompting officials to rate it on a par with Chernobyl, although experts were quick to point out Japan’s crisis was vastly different from Chernobyl in terms of radiation contamination.

TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said he was considering resigning over the accident, but that he couldn’t say when.

“This is the biggest crisis since the founding of our company,” Katsumata told a news conference at which the timetable was unveiled.

“Getting the nuclear plant under control, and the financial problems associated with that… How we can overcome these problems is a difficult matter.”

The toll from Japan’s triple catastrophe is rising. More than 13,000 people have been confirmed dead, and on Wednesday the government cut its outlook for the economy, in deflation for almost 15 years, for the first time in six months.

TEPCO and the government are under pressure to clarify when those who have had to evacuate the area around the damaged plant will be able to go home. Prime Minister Naoto Kan faced heavy criticism over comments, which he later denied making, suggesting the evacuees might not be able to return for 10 or 20 years.

“We would like to present objective facts to help the government make judgment and outlook on when those who have evacuated can come back home,” TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata told a news conference at which the timeframe was unveiled.

Katsumata also said the company was taking steps to cope with the possibility of another big tsunami. The area has been rocked by large aftershocks since the magnitude 9.0 quake struck and triggered the devastating tsunami.

But he said he had no idea how much it would ultimately cost to stabilize the plant.

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Despite disturbing claims about the impact of uranium, ten-thousand proposals for exploration in the Grand Canyon area have been submitted. A key fuel for nuclear power, the US must now decide between full scale uranium mining, partial mining or a twenty year moratorium. Leana Hosia investigates.

Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon it’s easy to see why it’s is called the crown jewels of the United States and a wonder of the world. Millions visit each year, generating some $600 million in tourism revenue. But a new wealth has been discovered here: America’s largest concentrations of high grade uranium – the fuel for nuclear power. In his energy policy President Barak Obama said ‘it is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option.’

Last year ten-thousand claims for exploration in the Grand Canyon area were submitted and the government decides next year between full scale mining, partial mining or a twenty year moratorium.

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Uranium in the Grand Canyon: USGS Report Examines Impacts of Mining

The dramatic potential for a meltdown and the dilemma posed by spent fuel tend to dominate discussions of nuclear power’s drawbacks, making it easy to forget the front end of that equation: uranium mining.

The United States imports the bulk of its nuclear fuel, but there are large deposits of uranium, mostly in the western part of the country, that could be mined. A new report from the U.S. Geological Survey looks at one such parcel of land in the Grand Canyon watershed area. It suggests that previous mining activity in the region has not resulted in serious contamination of soil or groundwater, but environmental groups and others are still trying to halt what they fear could become a huge upsurge in uranium mining activity.

The study focused on an area covering about 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon — including land within a few miles of the Colorado River — where the Department of the Interior enacted a land segregation order in July 2009. That order started a two-year period during which the DOI will assess the impacts of extracting the resource and will eventually decide whether or not to “withdraw” the land from consideration for mining under the Mining Law of 1872; that withdrawal would last 20 years.

Roger Clark, the air and energy program director at the environmental group Grand Canyon Trust, said that commercial interest in uranium mining swung in the last decade when the price of the fuel shot from around $5 per pound to over $100 until settling recently to just below $50.

“With that upsurge in price of milled uranium, the demand has gone up, and the number of claims around the Grand Canyon has surged,” he said. “More than 10,000 new claims were filed in the last five years.”

Uranium mining in the geologic formations known as breccia pipes that abound in the area around the Grand Canyon did occur during the 1980s but diminished as the prices dropped. Now, in spite of the thousands of new claims, only one mine in the area is currently operating. Clark said Grand Canyon Trust has filed a lawsuit attempting to block it because of a lack of a thorough environmental impact assessment, but for the moment, the mining is ongoing.

Huge Uranium Deposits

The USGS report found that within the almost 1 million acres of segregated land there is an estimated 163,000 tons of uranium oxide, from which yellowcake or enriched uranium can be extracted. This represents about 12 percent of the total amount in the northern Arizona area.

It’s difficult to estimate how much of the total uranium in the country that would be, “because for the last 30 years, there has been no federal assessment of minable uranium,” said James Otton, one of the study’s authors and the project chief with the USGS for the Uranium Resources and the Environment project.

The Energy Information Administration, part of the Department of Energy, estimated in 2003 that the total uranium oxide reserves that could be mined — outside of restricted areas — at a price of $50 per pound is 445,000 tons (or 890 million pounds), but Otton said they will most likely update that quantity in the near future. The Obama administration and members of Congress have started pushing for a nuclear power revival after years of little new nuclear activity.

The 104 nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States use between 25,000 and 27,500 tons of uranium oxide per year, Otton said. Previous federal protections have already cut off about 460,000 tons of uranium oxide from mining in the Grand Canyon region.

Even if the DOI does extend the moratorium out to 20 years on the 1 million acres up for discussion, some mining might still occur within that area. Claims that have already been filed and that are determined by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to have “valid and existing rights” to mine the uranium will be allowed to move forward.

Otton said he expects the one currently operating mine, the Arizona No. 1 mine run by Denison Mines, to receive such an exemption, but it is unclear how many of those 10,000 or more relatively recent claims would eventually result in mining.

“We don’t know what percentage of the resource may eventually prove to be minable simply because of valid existing rights,” Otton said.

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