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Trembling minister puts his Fukushima nuclear water where his mouth is

Politician takes the acid test in attempt to show Japanese public that stricken reactor is safe

The battle to convince a sceptical world that the Fukushima crisis is under control took a surreal turn yesterday when a Japanese Cabinet minister gulped down a glass of water from a puddle inside the doomed nuclear power plant.

In what is likely to become an iconic image from the eight-month struggle to contain the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, Yasuhiro Sonoda swigged the water, which he said was taken from inside the building that houses reactors five and six.

The move followed an earlier press conference in which the minister told a journalist who repeatedly asked him about the safety of decontaminated water from the plant that it was safe enough to "put in your mouth". When asked if he would do so himself, Mr Sonoda, a spokesman for the Cabinet Office, replied: "Well, if that's going to satisfy the people, I will." Dozens of cameras clicked and whirred through the short performance, which took place at the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Although Mr Sonoda's hand appeared to be shaking slightly as he poured the liquid, he confidently knocked back the glass of water in scenes reminiscent of Britain's then Agriculture Minister, John Gummer, eating hamburgers with his daughter in 1990 at the height of the "mad cow disease" scare. Afterwards, Mr Sonoda seemed to hedge his bets, saying that drinking the water didn't mean it was safe. "The best way is to present data to the public," he added.

Japan's government has struggled to persuade the public that its strategy for bringing the plant to cold shutdown, which involves dumping water on its melted-down reactors, is working. Tepco engineers have been trying to decontaminate the radioactive water since the summer, when on-site storage facilities began to be overwhelmed. Last month, they admitted the temperature of the nuclear fuel would reach 1200C within 18 or 19 hours if the water stopped, but said this was a "worst case scenario".

The accident, triggered by the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March, showered the surrounding countryside and sea with caesium and other radioactive elements and forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 people.

Tepco says the crippled reactors are on schedule for safe shutdown by the end of the year. Experts warned this week, however, that decommissioning the six-reactor complex could take 30 years.

Thousands of shoppers are shunning Fukushima-grown rice and fruit, despite official assurances that it is safe. A string of senior politicians, including former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, have appeared on television to eat produce from the prefecture.