Work to remove nuclear fuel rods from the embattled Fukushima plant, a task described by experts as a perilous but necessary process, has begun.
More than 1,500 fuel rod assemblies—four-meter long tubes containing pellets of uranium fuel—will have to be removed from a damaged reactor building at the plant using special equipment, Tokyo Electric Power Co said.
The first 22 assemblies will be removed one at a time and placed in watertight casks in a delicate operation that could last at least two days.
Workers have to ensure that the rods, feared damaged during the meltdown, will not be exposed to air as they could overheat and contaminate the area. The fuel rods will then be deposited into a more secure storage pool with a cooling system.
This initial step could be a decisive move for the whole removal process set to take a year.
Cooling systems to three reactors at the plant were knocked out when the tsunami struck, sending the facility into a state of partial meltdown. The No. 4 reactor, where the rods are kept, was under going maintenance when the disaster hit. But a build-up of hydrogen triggered an explosion and damaged its structure.
Rubble from the blast could pose a problem, Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka warned.
“The fuel has to be handled very carefully. There is a need to make sure that a fuel assembly is not pulled out from the fuel rack by force when it gets stuck because of the rubble,” Kyodo news agency quoted him as saying.
Tepco spokesman Masayuki Ono called the operation “a very important process in moving ahead with the plant’s decommissioning.”
High levels of radioactivity from toxic water leaks has impeded decommissioning efforts at the plant.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed hope that the operation would be smooth sailing from here on.
“We hope that this process will be conducted in a manner that will not disturb local residents, and that the removal will be done on schedule, properly and safely,” Suga said.
By Maesie Bertumen
Image: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr