TEPCO prepares for fuel rod removal at Fukushima

Environment News & Views Trends & Culture - November 10th, 2013

More than 1,000 nuclear fuel rods are set to be removed from the Fukushima nuclear plant, an essentially risky process that could culminate into an even bigger crisis.

Engineers at Tokyo Electric Power Co are preparing for the painstaking task of extracting the fuel rods from a storage pool inside one of the wrecked reactor buildings at the badly damaged plant.

The No. 4 reactor, where the rods are kept, was undergoing maintenance when the disaster hit. But the meltdown of a neighboring reactor led to a build-up of hydrogen which may have caused explosion in Unit 4.

Since then, removing the fuel rods—four meter long tubes containing pellets of uranium—is a high priority but has been marred by setbacks and glitches.

The rods should be kept under water at all times because contact with air risks overheating and triggering a release that could spread contamination.

A senior official in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry told the BBC that the rods will be lifted out in batches of 22 and in casks filled with water. The process will take seven to ten days, and the exact timing for the removal has not been announced.

Nuclear engineers are concerned whether the rods themselves are damaged and therefore likely to leak. It is not certain whether the casks remain watertight and that the rods will not be in contact with the air.

A single misstep could lead to a possible “release of radiation,” the ministry official said.

The successful removal of the fuel rods will boost decontamination efforts of the plant, said company spokeswoman Mayumi Yoshida.

“It is crucial. It is a first big step towards decommissioning the reactors,” she said. “Being fully aware of risks, we are determined to go ahead with operations cautiously and securely.”

Tepco, which has long struggled to contain leaks of toxic water used to cool the reactors, has announced it agreed to accept the help of the US Department of Energy to carry out the dangerous operation.

“The United States stands ready to continue assisting our partner in this daunting yet indispensable task,” US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said. “We will work together to tackle many challenges toward decommissioning. I have high hopes that we will able to benefit from US experience and expertise at Fukushima.”

By Maesie Bertumen

Image: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr