Japan Begins Removal of Nuclear Fuel From Fukushima Reactor
Tokyo Electric Power Co. began work to remove fuel rods from Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Reactor on Monday, April 15. The work by the power company known as TEPCO marks a milestone in a decades-long process of cleaning up after the plant’s nuclear meltdown.
On March 11, 2011, a Magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the Tohoku region of Japan, and the subsequent tsunami wiped out the Fukushima nuclear plant. After the meltdown, radioactive material was leaked into the air and ocean, forcing 300,000 residents nearby to be evacuated.
Japan’s nuclear agency classified the meltdown as level 7, which is the most severe classification. The only other nuclear incident that was marked level 7 was the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.
Although TEPCO has continuously worked on cleaning up the nuclear site, the work up to now has mostly been to contain the radioactive materials within the plant, and work with reactors that weren’t seriously damaged by the tsunami. In 2014, TEPCO removed all 1,535 fuel units from the storage pool at a reactor that was idle and had no fuel inside its core when the tsunami hit the site.
Eight years after the meltdown and after delays, work has begun to remove nuclear material from nearby Reactor 3, which was damaged by the tsunami. The work starts with moving 566 used and unused nuclear rods to safer grounds.
Although TEPCO says that the nuclear rods were not damaged in the Tsunami, the two-year plan to transfer them to a safer space would protect them if another earthquake were to hit the region. The rods are moved remotely by operators in a control room about 500 meters away from the site using a crane.
In the entire decommissioning process, which is expected to take 30 to 40 years, the current process of removing the undamaged rods is not considered the hardest to come. In the future, melted fuel inside the nuclear reactors will need to be removed, a task that is expected to be far more challenging.
Currently, there is no plan to remove the melted fuel, in part because crucial details like where exactly the fuel is located are not yet known.