TEPCO to begin high-risk operation of Fukushima fuel rod removal

This month, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is to begin a difficult and dangerous task, as it sets out to remove the first of several thousand potentially unstable fuel rods from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Nuclear engineers in Japan are preparing to begin the long and arduous – not to mention risky – task of transporting the uranium and plutonium fuel rods out of the reactor building which was heavily damaged by the March 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami. The fuel rods, which each stand at four metres long, filled with pellets of uranium fuel, are currently being stored in a pool in the Fukushima Daiichi plant. There are over 1,500 rods to be removed, a daunting number, but experts say that the removal operation is a dangerous but essential step in the nuclear plant’s decommissioning process.

Whilst the removal of fuel rods does not constitute anything out of the ordinary for a typical day’s work at a nuclear power plant, the removal of these rods must be approached with extra caution, as there are fears that they may have been damaged and destabilised during the 2011 disaster. The operation could not have taken place before necessary repair work had taken place, such as removing the chunks of debris that were flung into the storage pool when surrounding buildings were damaged, but experts are now happy that the removal process can go ahead. Additional precautions have also been set up, such as a protective hood erected over the building, in an attempt to contain any radioactive leakage.

The rods must be submerged in water at all times, as even the slightest contact with the outside air could cause the rods to overheat and release radiation. Once removed, the rods will be transferred to a different storage pool, which, according to a Ministry of Trade, Economics and Industry (METI) official, contains its own cooling system, and is “planned to be used over a long period, supposedly for 10 to 20 years, and will be reinforced against possible future earthquakes and tsunamis.”

The task is certainly not without its risks, and experts have warned that even the smallest of mistakes could easily escalate rapidly. It is likely to be decades before Fukushima is fully decommissioned, and harder tasks are yet to come, such as the removal of the plant’s reactor cores, which are thought to be melted beyond all repair.

Sources include BBC News, Japan Today

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