Nuclear Pick-Up Sticks

TEPCO begins precarious process of removing spent fuel rods at Fukushima Plant

Genki Kino in front of the infamous nuclear power facility, Fukushima, prior to the meltdown. Photo: Takahashi

Genki Kino in front of the infamous nuclear power facility, Fukushima, prior to the meltdown in 2011. Photo: Takahashi

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has undertaken the very delicate and potentially dangerous process of removing more than 1,000 spent fuel rods from the No. 4 nuclear reactor, the first major step in decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Under normal circumstances, removing spent fuel rods is considered to be a relatively routine task for nuclear power plant operators. But the situation at the Fukushima plant is anything but ordinary.

In the days following the tragic tsunami that swept through Japan's coastline in March of 2011, chaos ensued at the plant. Two days after the tsunami, a hydrogen explosion occurred, causing a nuclear meltdown in three of the four reactors. Nearly three years later, still housed in a crippled plant, TEPCO is finally ready to begin the process of removing the dangerous fuel rods from one of the four reactors. Because the buildings housing the reactors are still damaged (TEPCO has taken steps to reinforce the structure) the undertaking will require the most delicate of touches. In a quote given to Reuters, Arnie Gunderson, an American nuclear energy expert experienced in the process of removing fuel rods, compared the task at hand with "pulling cigarettes from a crushed pack." If the spent rods, which are suspended more than 100 feet high in a pool of water, were to be dropped or crushed, the results could be catastrophic.

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“All I can do is pray that nothing goes wrong," Yasuro Kawai, a one-time plant engineer at Fukushima told the New York Times. The likelihood of an accident, however, is said to be slim as the company, with the help of nuclear experts from around the world, is taking a painstakingly detailed approach to the effort.

Nuclear safety experts agree that the fuel rods from reactor No. 4 have to be moved to a safer location. Their primary concern is that another earthquake could strike the area, causing the rods to be crushed if they aren’t relocated. On average, up to 2,000 earthquakes that can be felt by people occur in Japan every year. Recently, a 7.1 quake occurred near the Fukushima reactor, spawning a minor tsunami.

While TEPCO seems to be approaching the process of removing the spent fuel rods with the utmost of caution, the way they've handled a litany of issues at the plant in the past has led many environmental groups and Japanese citizens to lose faith in the company. Hiromi Matsubara of the Japanese chapter of the Surfrider Foundation believes that TEPCO has proven themselves inept. In July, we reported that contaminated groundwater from the plant had been leaking into the ocean from the No. 3 reactor for more than two years.

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"I don't have any trust in TEPCO. Our national mass media isn’t following the story as much as they should,” said Matsubara. “As a citizen, it’s important that we take stock of what’s happening and what the potential risks could be. Fukushima has now become a global problem, requiring a global solution."

Surprisingly, the greater story here may not be the inherent dangers that TEPCO faces in removing the spent fuel rods from reactor No. 4, but the unknown problems that continue to percolate in reactors 1-3. Currently, those reactors are considered to be too radioactive to approach.