Japan to begin removal of fuel rods from Fukushima plant
Crane units are installed over the spent fuel pool inside the No.4 reactor building at the tunami-crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, in this photo released by Kyodo November 6, 2013. (Reuters/Kyodo)
TEPCO is preparing to begin the dangerous task of extracting over 1,500 nuclear fuel rods from the Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant. The risky operation is an essential step in to stabilize the site, in a process that could take decades.
Removing the spent fuel from a pool inside the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s fourth reactor presents significant risks given the radioactivity of the rods is 14,000 times more than what was released during the 1945 Hiroshima bombing. A slight mishap could release a huge amount of radiation into the atmosphere.
The removal of fuel is part of regular work at any nuclear power plant, but "conditions are different from normal because of the disaster," said company spokeswoman Mayumi Yoshida.
Tokyo Electric Power’s plan for the extraction of the rods was approved by the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization Wednesday and will begin mid-November. Extraction was originally due to begin on Friday, but the Nuclear Energy Safety Organization called for more safety tests which set back the process.
The operation will entail lifting bundles of the 4-meter-long uranium and plutonium rods out of the storage pool where they were being kept when the earthquake-triggered tsunami struck Fukushima in 2011.
The rods will then be individually transferred into a water-filled cask and loaded onto a truck to be transported to a more secure site on the territory of the power station. TEPCO has assured that the 18-month process will go off without a hitch and that the necessary measures have been taken to ensure safety.
The company has reinforced the storage pool where the rods are being held with steel and concrete and claim that it can withstand an earthquake of the same magnitude as the one in 2011.
In addition, a steel shell has been constructed to block radiation leaks while the rods are being moved.
Doubts have been raised over TEPCO’s initiative. Scientists have urged caution as such an operation has never been undertaken.
“Handling spent fuels involves huge risks," said Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority. "It would be a disaster if radioactive materials come out of the metal rods during the work.”
"This is the first practical milestone for the project," said Hiroshi Miyano, a nuclear systems expert and visiting professor at Hosei University in Tokyo.
"Any trouble in this operation will considerably affect the timetable for the entire project," he said to AFP."This is an operation TEPCO cannot afford to bungle."
Christina Consolo, the founder and host of Nuked Radio, who has studied the Fukushima disaster in depth, told RT that she was not optimistic that the operation would be successful.
“The worst-case scenario is that there’s a nuclear chain reaction, a criticality in the pool during this procedure and it can’t be stopped,” she said.
She added that Tepco “are in over their heads” and that Japan has turned down foreign help, including offers from the US and Russia.
Still, Consolo said Japan has no option but to proceed with the operation, as they can’t leave the fuel rods where they are, as “even a mild earthquake could cause the building to collapse.”
If one of the rods were to be exposed to the air it would release radiation and heat up, potentially triggering a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. TEPCO has said that this is unlikely to occur.
TEPCO’s management of the crisis situation has been criticized as haphazard and ill-planned, with one Japanese minister likening it to a game of “whack-a-mole.” Currently the organization is battling to stop leaks of radioactive water from the tanks used to cool the reactors.
While the extraction of the fuel rods represents a significant challenge for TEPCO, the much more complex task of removing the misshapen cores of the stricken reactors awaits scientists.