Fukushima 'unprecedented challenge': new Japan PM

The clean-up at Fukushima after its tsunami-sparked nuclear meltdowns is unlike anything humanity has ever tried, Japan's prime minister said on Saturday during a tour of the plant.

"The massive work toward decommissioning is an unprecedented challenge in human history," the newly-elected Shinzo Abe said. "Success in the decommissioning will lead to the reconstruction of Fukushima and Japan."

Abe was at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi just days after being sworn in following the triumph of his pro-business Liberal Democratic Party in national elections.

The prime minister's trip to the still-ruined site, on which he was accompanied by an AFP journalist, is part of a push by his administration to tackle an issue that has been a major talking point in Japan over much of the last two years.

Observers widely expect Japan to restart its nuclear programme on the LDP's watch, despite public concerns that the party was partially responsible for the extent of the catastrophe because of a culture of complicity during its more than five-decade rule.

His government said Thursday it would review a pledge by the previous administration to scrap nuclear power within three decades and would give the green light to any power plants deemed safe by regulators.

Japan's entire stable of 50 reactors was shuttered for safety inspections in the aftermath of the March 2011 disaster at Fukushima, where a tsunami swamped cooling systems, sparking meltdowns.

The reactors at the plant raged out of control for months after the initial catastrophe, spewing radiation over a wide area and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

Abe's visit comes around a year after experts said they had brought the wrecked units under control. However, melted fuel remains inside their cores and their full decommissioning and cleaning-up is expected to take decades.

Dressed in a protective suit and wearing a face mask, Abe was taken by bus to see two of the damaged reactors.

Thanking workers for their efforts at this time of year, when many people are celebrating New Year at home with their families, he said: "Decommissioning work is hard work, but it is progressing. We owe it all to you."

"We, the government, will give full support."

The disaster at Fukushima was the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. Work to clean up at the site in Ukraine is still going on, more than a quarter of a century after a reactor exploded.

Before Fukushima, Japan had relied on nuclear for around a third of its electricity needs and there was little public debate about the merits of the technology.

The meltdowns generated fierce opposition throughout the country, sending tens of thousands of people onto the streets.

Opponents said lax oversight by nuclear regulators who appeared to have the interests of power companies at heart had exacerbated the impact of the accident.

Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) admitted earlier this year that it had not carried out upgrading and repair work at the site because it wanted to avoid alarming people over how safe reactors were.

But the strong vein of anti-atomic sentiment did not translate into success at the ballot box earlier this month for parties championing an end to nuclear power.

Abe's LDP won a healthy parliamentary majority, despite being widely viewed as the most pro-nuclear option on offer.

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