SEOUL— The company struggling to clean up Japan's crippled nuclear power plant has invited foreign experts and journalists to the site in a bid to reassure the world it has the situation under control. However, as Tokyo Electric Power Company prepares for the delicate task of removing spent fuel rods, it continues to face questions about its competence.
Workers at Japan's quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station this month are expected to begin removing 1,500 spent fuel assemblies, to be placed in safe storage. Spent nuclear fuel is extremely hot and very radioactive. During the removal process, if the assemblies are damaged or the rods overheat, large amounts of radioactive material could be released into the air.
TEPCO says that despite the continuing struggles to stabilize the situation at the troubled plant, it can safely manage the dangerous transfer. To that end, the company released a video to explain the process and reassure the public, saying they have safely removed spent fuel more than 1,200 times.
“The machinery used for the extraction has also been modified to meet this unique challenge. Failsafe wiring and redundant braking systems are used, along with censors to prevent weight overloads and excess stresses. And all the removal equipment has been made strong enough to withstand even the unlikely event of another earthquake as strong as the March 2011 quake,” a company spokesman said in the video.
Hydrogen explosions during the Fukushima disaster, caused by overheated fuel rods, blew roofs and walls off reactor buildings and sent debris into cooling tanks. Most large pieces have been removed.
The fuel assemblies are in reactor number four, one of six reactors at the damaged plant, which is located 250 kilometers northeast of Tokyo.
Reactor four is the biggest immediate concern because it has the most spent fuel; it will take more than a year to store the fuel away safely.
As part of a public relations outreach to build public confidence, this week the company took groups of journalists on a tour of the damaged plant, including a rare look at reactor four.
Chico Harlan, the Washington Post's East Asia Bureau Chief, was at the plant Thursday along with about 18 other foreign journalists.
“The question I think for a lot of the media was whether to take TEPCO at its word or whether to look at some of the other comments that are easy to find elsewhere, including from Japan's regulators, that there are some pretty serious dangers here,” said Harlan.
TEPCO has been heavily criticized for the plant's failure to withstand the quake and its slow and clumsy release of information to the public.
The company lost much of its credibility when, after months of denials, it admitted hundreds of tons of contaminated water is leaking from the plant into the ocean.
In August, Japan's government announced it would take a more direct role in the cleanup. Plans are in place to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to stop the leaks.
Tokyo is also consulting with international experts on how to deal with the ongoing problem. Scientists from the International Atomic Energy Agency were invited to collect seawater samples from areas around the plant this week to analyze for radioactivity.
IAEA Ecologist David Osborn said they will have a more robust mission to Fukushima later this month, but for now it is up to Tokyo to decide their degree of assistance.
"If the government of Japan feels it is appropriate for independent authorities, whether it's the IAEA or other countries, other laboratories to come, that will be their decision. But this is something we will most likely be discussing with them," said Osborn.
Another growing problem is what to do with the growing stock of radioactive water used to cool the plant's nuclear rods. More than 1,000 storage tanks are filling up fast and efforts to decontaminate the water are behind schedule.
Reactors 1, 2 and 3, which suffered meltdowns, pose the most difficult problem and will take decades to solve.
Their fuel overheated, melted together, and fell to the bottom of the cooling tanks. The resulting radiation makes it too dangerous for workers to remove them; technology to safely complete the job does not yet exist.