NHK World reports the beginning of Fukushima Reactor Unit 4 fuel rod transfer. (Screenshot of NHK broadcast, video released by TEPCO.)
The ticklish operations involved in decommissioning Tokyo Electric’s ruined nuclear power plant at Fukushima began on Monday. Workers at the plant began removing unused nuclear fuel from the fourth-floor storage pool at the damaged Reactor Unit 4. As planned, they lowered a special fuel transport container by crane into the storage pool, which holds 1,533 rods of uranium pellets in secondary containment. Careful transfer of the first four fuel rods took about three and a half hours.
According to televised reports, teams of six people are working two-hour shifts–the upper limit of allowable radiation exposure–to maneuver the cranes used to move the rods. The container cask can hold 22 units of fuel at a time. The first set of transfers from the pool is either still under way or completed by now. Over the next week, TEPCO employees will move the cask cautiously by truck and place the fuel in a safer and larger ground-level storage pool a short distance away. About 10 iterations of this process will clear the clean fuel rods from Unit 4.
The next step involves transferring the spent (used) fuel rods, which can release high levels of radiation and considerable heat. There are 1,331 of these, and some of them are known to be damaged. TEPCO expects it will take about a year to make the transfers. The company is proceeding from what nuclear experts agree is the easiest task to the most difficult: safely coping with the molten fuel released by the other three affected reactors somewhere below the ground’s surface. They expect to decommission the plant within four decades.
Complicating the process are serious leaks from the plant to groundwater and the Pacific. Small ruptures have started to develop in the huge number of tanks and pipes used to hold radioactive cooling water, both fresh and salt. Several days ago, a sophisticated robot successfully pinpointed two of these leak sites. The exact quantities and radioactivity can only be addressed by estimates. Predictably, these vary.
The world’s top three news bureaus have all run stories on the Fukushima operation. Reuters/Yahoo has made available a gallery of photographs. Robert Siegel’s All Things Considered audio interview yesterday with NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel gives a short take on the situation.
TEPCO has filmed the entire fuel rod removal so far and handled its release with unprecedented transparency. Agence France-Presse, the oldest world news agency, provides a minute of TEPCO’s video coverage at this link. You’ll find more detail on YouTube in a 20-minute collation that includes Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, and culls from euronews and other televised reports. This video also includes key quotes from the international press, and feature material about the views of government, local businesses, and people living nearby.
As we’ve stated in earlier articles on PlanetSave, observers at all levels have qualms about TEPCO’s ability to perform its task at Unit 4. They base their concern on both the many unknowns in the process and TEPCO’s dismal habits of initially covering up its mistakes and not consulting the international pool of nuclear experts in a timely fashion. AP, BBC, and Kyodo News, among others, have all reported these concerns. Our recent story revealed the skepticism of three current and former high Japanese officials. TEPCO has not publicly released emergency contingency or evacuation plans, if any, probably for fear of unduly alarming the public.
In The New York Times Dot Earth blog yesterday, Andy Revkin noted the hysteria of some “apocalyptic” reports on the situation. Mr. Revkin linked to TEPCO’s rosy video displaying the ideal fuel relocation process and ended by quoting David Lochbaum, a respected nuclear engineer and director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, regarding one expected scenario presented by an antinuclear spokesperson.
Lochman acknowledged the inherent danger of the Unit 4 situation and stated that he felt TEPCO’s approach was sensible. He also lauded the company for addressing the issue of structural failure by reinforcing the building and removing the large debris from the explosion that blew off the roof. “TEPCO did not put schedule ahead of safety,” Lochbaum said in the interview. “They’ve taken time, but not undue time, to understood the problem before applying a solution.” He was quoted as saying that international assistance would not serve any purpose at this time.
Others differ. Perhaps the best that can be said right now: “We’ll see.” At any rate, the first hours of the fuel rod removal have reportedly gone smoothly. And the parties generally agree that it’s time someone did something about the two and a half year-old disaster.