Today, officials at Tokyo Electric Power Company could breathe a sigh of relief. Using remote-controlled cranes, workers at Fukushima Daiichi cleared some of the dangerously radioactive uranium fuel rod racks from the upper-story cooling pond of damaged Reactor Unit 4. You can see TEPCO’s video of parts of the operation here.
Technicians loaded unused fuel assemblies underwater from the unit’s secondary containment into a specially designed steel-walled canister (see photo), which looks like a huge home hot water heater and must be decontaminated every time it is transferred from radioactive water to air. At 1:20 this afternoon (Tokyo time), the operators began the process of moving the cask onto the truck that would carry it to a safer storage location at ground level nearby. TEPCO has reported that the transfer has gone smoothly so far. After the fresh fuel rods are removed, the company will tackle the problem of moving the reactor’s spent fuel, which is hotter and more dangerous than fresh fuel.
“TEPCO has worked out individual scenarios to deal with stoppages of pool cooling, water leaks from the pools, a massive earthquake, a fire, and an accident involving the trailer, but not for dealing with a situation in which two or more incidents occur simultaneously. Therefore it must proceed in an extremely careful[ly] manner,” the Japan Times reported earlier today.
TEPCO president acknowledges miscalculations
The president of the utility, Naomi Hirose, told The Guardian this week that “What happened at Fukushima was, yes, a warning to the world.” Hirose stated that “We made a lot of excuses to ourselves” and unwarranted assumptions that others had discussed adequate “counter-measures” for large tsunamis.
“We tried to persuade people that nuclear power is 100% safe….But we have to explain, no matter how small a possibility, what if this [safety] barrier is broken? We have to prepare a plan if something happens.… It is easy to say this is almost perfect so we don’t have to worry about it. But we have to keep thinking: what if.…”
International oversight visit
Adequacy of international consultation has been an issue since the incident occurred. Concerns have increased since the revelation of TEPCO’s apparent bravado and inattention early in the process. Although TEPCO has performed nuclear fuel transfers before without incident, this is the first time the company has had to deal with a reactor damaged by earthquake, flooding, and explosions.
Apprehension will be mitigated somewhat when 19 experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency visit the site from November 25 to December 4 to assess the success of this week’s mission and the current state of TEPCO’s efforts to prevent contaminated water from leaking out of multiple storage tanks. The Japanese government requested the visit. Hahn Pil-soo, the IAEA’s director of radiation, transport, and waste safety, will be on the team.
IAEA, the world’s clearinghouse and watchdog for nuclear operations, formed in 1957 as energy firms began installing nuclear plants across the world on a wide scale. Vienna is the agency’s headquarters. IAEA’s goal is to promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies.
Next step in decommissioning
Japan News describes the second phase of the reactor decommissioning process, which will begin when the Unit 4 work has finished, possibly as early as 2015. The company then needs to tackle the problem of recovering spent fuel from Reactor Units 1-3.
These reactors were online at the time of the magnitude 9 Great East Japan subsea earthquake, tsunami, and explosions that killed more than 18,000 people in March 2011. They present unique challenges because at least some of their fuel melted down, the molten fuel’s location below the reactors is presently unknown, and its chemical composition is likely more toxic because it contains more plutonium and unstable isotopes. The tricky core meltdown work will probably start around 2020.
In a word of caution to the developers of eight proposed British nuclear generating stations and of similar facilities across the globe, TEPCO president Hirose offered the following advice:
“Try to examine all the possibilities, no matter how small they are, and don’t think any single counter-measure is foolproof. Think about all different kinds of small counter-measures, not just one big solution. There’s not one single answer.”
Hirose now feels that Japan will achieve its best electric power results through energy diversification, using oil, gas, and renewables as well as nuclear generation. Before the disaster at Fukushima, Japan had planned to expand nuclear power to supply half the nation’s energy needs. TEPCO’s official position, stated on its website, is that “Nuclear power generation has excellent long-term prospects for the stable procurement of nuclear fuel and for effectively countering global warming problems.” Forty percent of the company’s revenues have historically come from nuclear power generation.
Presently, all 50 of Japan’s nuclear plants (17 of which are owned by TEPCO) have been shut down. Fukushima Daiichi Units 1-4 are unusable, and the company has just bowed to a government request that the other two reactors (5 and 6) on the site be mothballed. Many in Japan, from ordinary people to three high former government officials, believe Japan should abandon nuclear power completely. Uncertainty about nuclear renewal and the high cost of using carbon-based technology to fill in for the power previously generated by nuclear plants (one third of Japan’s electricity) forced the country this week to renege on an earlier promise and greatly lower its climate change goals.