U.N. nuclear experts have arrived in Japan to assess the progress of the decommissioning of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant.
Officials said on Monday that the 19-member team from the International Atomic Energy Agency are on a 10-day mission to monitor the management of tons of contaminated water at the site, and to check on progress in the removal and storage of fuel rods. The team will also look at future plans for containing the worst nuclear accident in a generation - a process that could take 40 years.
The IAEA team will visit the Fukushima site and talk with government officials and management of the Tokyo Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the plant.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 220 kilometers north of Tokyo, was destroyed by a huge earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. More than 150,000 residents were evacuated after the meltdown of three nuclear reactors.
During their last review in April, the IAEA was critical of TEPCO’s cleanup effort, saying its plan had an unrealistic time frame and calling for a comprehensive approach to handling contaminated water.
The government, academics and other experts have since roundly criticized TEPCO over a long series of leaks of contaminated water. The company acknowledged in July that radiated water had been reaching the Pacific Ocean, probably since the disaster.
“There continues to be significant public disquiet over the disclosure of various issues around the Fukushima plant, including the water contamination issue into the Pacific Ocean despite the government's increased involvement in the clean-up activities,” said Tom O'Sullivan, founder of independent energy consultancy Mathyos Japan.
Improved Water Management
After the government said in September it would step in to oversee the process, water management has improved. That has allowed TEPCO to turn to the real decommissioning work and start removing the spent fuel rods - a process described by one expert as similar to removing cigarettes from a crushed pack.
Last week, TEPCO completed the removal of the first batch of rods from a cooling pool. Its technicians must pluck more than 1,500 brittle and potentially damaged assemblies from a pool stored 18 meters above ground level in a building that was tilted during the quake.
The fuel extraction is an early stage in the decommissioning process, and serves as an important test for a skeptical government and public that the utility can handle the cleanup.
The experts will also assess efforts to treat and find storage space for hundreds of tons of radioactive water that TEPCO dumps over the wrecked reactors every day to keep them cool.
The acknowledgement that 300 tons of highly radioactive water had leaked from one of the hastily built tanks on site triggered international alarm over Japan's handling of the cleanup.
The government has pledged additional funds to deal with radioactive water. TEPCO has promised to double pay for workers after coming under fire for labor conditions inside the wreckage of the plant.
An investigation last month found that workers' pay was being skimmed, and that some employees had been hired under false pretences while some contractors had links to organized crime gangs.
Some information in this report was contributed by Reuters.