TOKYO — Workers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan are about to embark on one of the most critical aspects of the clean-up: removing the fuel rods from one of the worst-hit reactors. Critics say the plant’s owners, TEPCO, should not be trusted to carry out the operation and warn the consequences of any accident would be unprecedented.
Over 1500 fuel rods sit in a damaged storage pool 30 meters above the ground inside the shell of the reactor 4 building at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Safely removing them is the next big challenge for the plant’s owner, TEPCO.
General Manager Masayuki Ono said the operation has been carefully planned.
He explained that because the entire reactor 4 building was destroyed by a hydrogen explosion, TEPCO had to reinforce the structure. This happened during the first year and that new building is now strong enough to stand another earthquake, he added.
That hydrogen explosion - one of the iconic images of the Fukushima accident - left the inside of the pool littered with debris.
Debris, fuel rod removal
TEPCO’s first task is to remove the debris. And then, one by one, the fuel rods will be removed manually using a crane suspended above the crippled reactor building.
Ono explained that a fuel extraction cover was built over Unit 4 and installed at the fuel handling facility. This structure does not put any weight on the Reactor 4 building, and can be used to remove the fuel without adding any additional weight.
The fuel rods must be kept submerged and must not touch each other or break. Nuclear experts warn any mishaps could cause an explosion many times worse than in March 2011.
Mitsuhei Murata, Japan’s former ambassador to Switzerland and an anti-nuclear campaigner, said a series of incidents over the past 30 months - including radioactive water leaks - have called into question TEPCO’s ability to carry out this critical operation.
“The Unit 4 contains 10 times more Cesium-137 than Chernobyl. So in case the worst occurs, a total withdrawal [from the site] will be imposed, which means this can be considered as the beginning of the ultimate catastrophe of the world and the planet,” said Murata.
Murata said the Fukushima crisis requires the world’s best scientific minds. “The two-and-a-half years of struggling by the state and by TEPCO have proven that nuclear accidents cannot be coped with by electric companies or by a single state. That’s why Japan should ask for international cooperation.”
Hironori Nakanishi, Director-General for Energy Policy at the government's Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, said Japan is engaging foreign expertise.
“The sole responsibility in managing the situation safely is still on TEPCO corporation. But still we are in the same boat and we have to support their activity," said Nakanishi. "So in order to achieve that goal we asked specialists from all over the world, which consists of six people, from the United States, the UK, France, Russia and Ukraine.”
Inspectors from Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority have approved TEPCO’s planned operation to remove the fuel from Reactor 4. The process is scheduled to begin in November and will take up to 18 months.