Japan: TEPCO begins nuclear fuel rod removal at Fukushima reactor

TEPCO is removing hundreds of radioactive cylinders from the tsunami-damaged Fukushima reactor site. The units are still intact and could spark a largescale disaster in the event of another earthquake.

Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) said Monday it had removed the first of 566 fuel rod assemblies from one of the three reactors at their tsunami-wrecked nuclear plant in Fukushima.

Nature and Environment | 14.06.2019

The move is a an important step in the decommissioning process.

TEPCO says the removal of the nuclear fuel rods will take about two years, followed by the removal of some 1,000 fuel units in storage pools at the other two reactors.

The Fukushima plant suffered a nuclear meltdown after a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. A total of 16 people were injured due to the explosions of hydrogen tanks at the plant, and one cancer death has thus far been attributed to the disaster.

Read more: Fukushima Japan nuclear fallout: Okuma residents encouraged home

Remotely operated removal

The fuel units are intact despite the disaster. However because the pools in which they sit are not enclosed, removing the units to safer ground is crucial to avoid a second catastrophe in case of another major earthquake.

Read more: Germany's atomic phaseout: How to dismantle a nuclear power plant

Removing the fuel in the cooling pools was delayed for more than four years by mishaps, high radiation and radioactive debris from an explosion that occurred during the meltdown.

Workers are remotely operating a crane built underneath the roof cover from a control room located about 500 meters (0.31 miles) away. The cranes are designed to lift the fuel from the storage rack in the pool before placing it into a protective cask. The whole process is occurring underwater in order to prevent radiation leaks. 

"I believe everything is going well so far," plant chief Tomohiko Isogai told Japanese broadcaster NHK from Fukishima.

Flash Galerie 25 Jahre Tschernobyl 9 (picture-alliance/ dpa)

Does nuclear power have a future?

Deadly disaster

The worst nuclear disaster of all time, the explosion at Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine released massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. Areas close to the plant - in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia - were heavily contaminated. Heightened levels of radiation were also measured across most of Europe. The "exclusion zone" around Chernobyl remains off-limits to human habitation today.

Does nuclear power have a future?

It happens again

After a magnitude-9 earthquake and consequent tsunami, three nuclear reactors at Fukushima power plant in Japan went into meltdown in March 2011. There were also four hydrogen explosions. The accident released 500 times as much radioactive cesium-137 as the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The clean-up is expected to take decades.

Does nuclear power have a future?

Sickening impact

After Chernobyl, thousands of people developed cancer. In Japan too, the heavily contaminated region of Fukushima, where 200,000 people lost their homes, saw cases of the disease escalate. The number of children with thyroid cancer there is 20 times higher than other regions.

Does nuclear power have a future?

Rallying against nuclear power

Chernobyl fueled public opposition to nuclear power, particularly in Europe. The same happened after Fukushima. Before the Japanese disaster, the country relied on nuclear for 30 percent of its power. That has fallen to 1 percent. The government wants to continue producing nuclear power and plans to reinstall some reactors. But affected regions have successfully pushed back those plans.

Does nuclear power have a future?

Nuclear industry in crisis

Today, the nuclear power sector is deep in economic crisis. In Japan, the United States and France, nuclear power plants run at a loss, and construction projects for new reactors have been postponed.

Does nuclear power have a future?

New-build set-backs

France had high hopes for its newest nuclear reactors - called pressurized water reactors (PWRs). This technology was supposed to be safe, and the Flamanville power plant was due to be switched on in 2012. Due to security issues, that's been pushed back to 2018 at the earliest. The project will cost more than 10 billion euros - three times the original budget.

Does nuclear power have a future?

Great Britain plans new reactors

For years, the UK has been planning to build two new PWR reactors at Hinkley Point. Costs are estimated at 33 billion euros and groundbreaking is slated for 2019. But doubts are growing over its economic viability. The electricity it produces will be much pricier than solar or wind power, and will need subsidies to compete in the market.

Does nuclear power have a future?

Aging reactors up for grabs

Nuclear power plants used to be lucrative. But now, many are old and frail. Repair costs often mean they cannot turn a profit. Swiss energy corporation Alpiq recently tried to give away two of its old plants, 33 and 38 years old, to French energy company EDF - which declined the offer.

Does nuclear power have a future?

Disasters abroad prompt German phase-out

Three decades ago, the Chernobyl disaster galvanized Germany's anti-nuclear movement, which is often cited as the roots of the country's energy transition. In 2002, Germany passed a law that would have seen the last reactor shut down in 2022. The plan was later scrapped by Angela Merkel's government. But after Fukushima, Merkel quickly reversed her decision and the phase-out was back on track.

Does nuclear power have a future?

Switching them off

So far, nine of Germany's reactors have gone offline, with eight more to follow by 2022. To finance the costs of nuclear waste disposal, plant operators must pay 23.6 billion euros into a federal fund. The operators themselves are responsible for the similarly costly process of dismantling the plants, which will take decades to complete.

Does nuclear power have a future?

Growing fear of accidents

Across the EU and Switzerland 132 nuclear reactors are still online. They were designed to operate for 30 to 35 years - their average age is now 32 years. Malfunctions and security issues are frequently detected and protestors are increasingly calling for plants to be shut down.

Does nuclear power have a future?

China pushes on with nuclear

No new nuclear power plants have been built in the EU, Japan or Russia since the Fukushima disaster in 2011. China remains committed to nuclear, partly to replace coal-based power. But the country is also upping investment in wind and solar.

dv/rt (AFP, Reuters)

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