Skip to main content

Operators begin hazardous fuel removal process at Fukushima nuclear plant

By Paul Armstrong and Kevin Voigt, CNN
updated 4:16 AM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Operators begin procedure to remove spent fuel from crippled Fukushima nuclear plant
  • TEPCO will begin taking out 1,500 spent fuel units from Reactor 4 for storage
  • Plant damaged by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011
  • Cleanup beset by numerous problems, including the leak of 300 tons of radioactive water

(CNN) -- Operators of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan have started the dangerous task of removing fuel rods from a damaged reactor, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said Monday.

The procedure is considered a milestone in the estimated $50 billion cleanup operation more than two years after a massive earthquake and tsunami brought disaster to the facility.

When the tsunami swamped the plant, located 149 miles (240 kilometers) north of Tokyo on Japan's eastern seaboard in March 2011, it cut the power to vital cooling systems for the three reactors in use at the time. This resulted in the second-worst nuclear accident in history -- after Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986 -- as the reactors melted down and leaked radioactive material into the atmosphere.

On Monday, TEPCO revealed "preparatory work" was underway, with a remote-controlled crane lowered inside Reactor 4. Some 1,500 spent fuel units will then be lifted from the cooling pool in specially-designed containers, or casks, and closed with a lid. Following decontamination, these casks will be taken down to ground level and transported to the common spent fuel pool on a trailer.

The entire removal of all fuel inside the Unit 4 spent fuel pool is expected to take until the end of 2014, TEPCO says.

Visiting the Fukushima plant
The children of Fukushima
Nuclear power for the future?

'Stopgap approach'

The Fukushima cleanup has been beset by numerous problems, with TEPCO frequently criticized for its handling of the disaster. Earlier this year, Japan's Trade and Industry Minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, compared its "stopgap approach" to a game of "Whack-a-mole." The government has since stepped in and pledged $470 million to try to tackle the leaks, through measures, which by its own admission are unconventional and untested.

TEPCO has been pumping huge volumes of water into the plant -- hundreds of tons daily -- to cool the crippled reactors that once powered the plant.

But this water, which becomes highly radioactive once it comes into contact with the plant's fuel rods, has been stored in makeshift, hastily-built storage tanks around the site -- about 1,000 so far -- containing enough irradiated water to fill about 160 Olympic-sized swimming pools, with about 400 tons added to the tanks daily.

Ongoing leaks

Scientists who monitor radiation levels offshore have pointed to evidence of an ongoing leak for more than a year, but it was only recently that TEPCO admitted it was occurring.

Last month, TEPCO said one of the storage tanks at the site had leaked 300 tons of toxic water, prompting Japan's nuclear regulator to declare the situation a Level 3 serious incident, its most serious assessment since the 2011 meltdown.

It has since stated that several tanks and pipes at the plant are suspected of leaking toxic water.

Michael Friedlander, a nuclear engineer and former U.S. power plant operator, told CNN in September that the eventual failure of the tanks years after they were deployed on a supposedly temporary, emergency basis is illustrative of TEPCO's ad hoc, unsustainable response to the disaster.

"Given the cards they were dealt, building a tank farm to hold the water in the heat of the emergency, there was really there only one option, so I don't fault them for that," he said.

But beyond the emergency response, TEPCO had demonstrated no long-term vision for dealing with the problem, he said.

Fukushima's nuclear power mess: Five big questions

Journey to the heart of Fukushima's crippled plant

CNN's Junko Ogura in Tokyo contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
A 15-year-old pregnant girl is rescued from slavery, only to be charged with having sex outside of marriage, shocked rights activists say -- a charge potentially punishable by death.
updated 12:07 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Airports judged on comfort, conveniences, cleanliness and customer service.
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
With so many new attractions on the way, the next few years are going to be a roller coaster ride.
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Thomas Malthus famously predicted that rising populations would create a food crunch: Could this be true?
updated 5:45 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
The lives of everyone close to Oscar Pistorius and the girl he killed are changed forever, his siblings say.
updated 6:33 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
From "Sick Man of Europe" to the world's fourth largest economy.
updated 8:18 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
updated 7:27 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Serbia and Albania try to play but the major game is called off after a drone flying a political flag enters the stadium.
updated 7:36 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
George Clooney's new wife, is now Amal Clooney, raising the issue of married names.
updated 1:57 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
The mysterious unmanned X-37B space plane returns to Earth after more than two years in space. But the U.S. Air force isn't saying much.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT