Preparing to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, TEPCO recently dismantled the damaged roof parapet of Unit 4 and removed debris there. (Screenshot source: Enformable.com/Lucas W. Hixson.)
As early as next Friday (November 8), the scariest decommissioning work at the ruined nuclear power complex may begin. Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the largest electrical utility in Japan, runs the six-unit facility. It crashed after the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011.
The 9.0-scale quake–the most powerful ever known to hit Japan–began in the Pacific, about 45 miles east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tōhoku. It triggered automatic shutdowns at the power plant. However, the record tsunami that followed swamped emergency generators, caused three huge explosions, and gravely imperiled the reactors. Since then, radiation has leaked into air, soil, ground, and surface water. The widest spread so far involves the northern Pacific Ocean.
In this first attempt at cleaning up the destroyed reactors, TEPCO aims to relocate over 1,300 highly radioactive spent and 200 unused fuel rods from an open upper-story pool at the Unit 4 reactor complex. The fuel needs to be secured at a safer, enclosed multi-unit storage area on ground level. For security reasons, the operator will not announce the actual date on which the risky work will begin.
Four hundred tons of radioactive material await relocation. These have 14,000 times the radiation potential of the bomb released by the U.S. at Hiroshima in 1945. JapanRealTime reports that the planned removal should “secure the fuel and help prevent any new massive radiation release at the facility.” That’s the theory the whole operation depends on. Critics are by no means certain it will work.
“If improperly handled or destabilized by another major earthquake at the site, the fuel could discharge large amounts of radiation into the environment,” said a Tuesday blog in the Wall Street Journal.
Japanese regulators gave the green light to TEPCO’s plans for Unit 4 on Wednesday. The company prepared to begin by removing the safer unused fuel rods and then moving on to the spent fuel. TEPCO expects the Unit 4 pool to be empty by end of next year. It would then move fuel from the other three other wrecked reactors to final containment. Work on the molten cores is expected to begin around 2020. The entire Fukushima Daiichi cleanup will probably take three or four decades.
In a surprise development on Thursday, the Liberal Democratic party of Japan’s prime minister, Abe Shinzo, proposed turning over the decommissioning to an entity including but independent of TEPCO. In its draft proposal, the LDP panel envisioned formation of either a new unit financially independent of the troubled operator or a government-affiliated agency to direct the work.
The panel cited TEPCO’s repeated missteps, poor planning, and inadequate disclosure history. The 6,000 technicians, engineers, truck drivers, and builders who remain on the job at Fukushima are reportedly suffering plummeting morale and health problems, including considerable anxiety.
“We need to have a prompt conclusion to create a clear and realistic organization,” the draft proposal stated. The prime minister is to review the panel’s final policy recommendations as soon as next week.
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, himself a nuclear physicist, and TEPCO’s President Naomi Hirose visited Fukushima Daiichi on Friday to inspect the fuel rod removal preparations. Late Friday afternoon, the Secretary issued a statement about possible U.S.-Japan collaboration on the upcoming work.
“As Japan continues to chart its sovereign path forward on the cleanup at the Fukushima site and works to determine the future of their energy economy, the United States stands ready to continue assisting our partners in this daunting yet indispensable task.”
Enformable.com reports that in return for this aid, “Secretary Moniz requested that Japan join an international treaty called the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage, which collects funds from participating countries to help pay for damages resulting for nuclear accidents. Economy and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi notified the United States… that Japan will join the international treaty.”
Moniz announced that the joint commission of Japan and the U.S. formed last year will meet in Washington on Monday. The commission will tackle the Fukushima cleanup, emergency response, and regulatory issues, and strengthening cooperation in civil nuclear research and development. Russia and France have also promised aid to Japan.
UPCOMING: What actually happened at Fukushima in March 2011, and Why residents are leaving Japan this week.