FUKUSHIMA, Japan - Japanese officials said on Saturday the unprecedented effort to remove spent fuel rods from one of the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactors was on track despite lingering concerns about the structure's vulnerability to another earthquake.
'I don't think the situation is unstable,' said Mr Goshi Hosono, Japan's minister in charge of the response to the nuclear crisis.
He was speaking to reporters after his first tour of the twisted and partly destroyed building that houses Fukushima's No. 4 reactor.
The visit marked an effort by Japanese officials to show they are addressing international concerns about the risk of a second accident at Fukushima, and a group of reporters were allowed to accompany Mr Hosono on his tour of the plant while clean-up operations were suspended for the day.
Mr Hosono said he expected workers to begin removing fuel from the No.4 reactor's storage pool next year.
Work began last month to raise what amounts to a giant tent over the building to keep radioactive dust from scattering during the transport of the fuel rods.
'We want to move as quickly as possible,' Mr Hosono said.
Tokyo Electric Power, the utility that operates the Fukushima Daiichi plant, says its analysis shows the No.4 reactor building would hold up in a strong earthquake even after being badly damaged by a hydrogen explosion last March when three nearby reactors suffered meltdowns.
Japanese safety regulators on Friday ordered Tepco to recheck its findings after measurements showed the west wall of the reactor building was buckling out by about 3cm.
Mr Hosono said the government accepted Tepco's estimate that the No.4 reactor could withstand an earthquake measuring a 'strong 6' on the Japanese scale.
The magnitude 9 quake last March that triggered a tsunami and overran Fukushima's back-up power systems was measured at 7 on the Japanese scale north of the plant in Miyagi prefecture.