Fukushima nuclear plant: Delicate operation underway to remove uranium fuel rods from ‘unstable’ storage facility

Unprecedented and delicate task faces many hazards as workers try to secure large quantities of nuclear material

Workers have begun the delicate operation to remove the first radioactive uranium fuel rods from a reactor at the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.

In a landmark moment for the full decommissioning process likely to take decades, a custom-built crane started lifting batches of fuel rods from a storage pool described as being in an “unstable condition”.

The rods are bundled together in assemblies, of which there are 1,533. Each one needs to be lifted out of the pool individually in a water-tight cask, before it is placed on a trailer and moved to a safer storage facility.

Experts warned that any mistakes by workers during the process – or worse still another large earthquake – could be disastrous. If the uranium rods are exposed to the air at any point during removal it could result in dangerous overheating and contamination levels.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), said the painstaking task got underway successfully at Fukushima’s Unit 4 reactor this morning.

Unit 4 was offline at the time of the March 2011 disaster, when an earthquake and subsequent tsunami knocked out the cooling systems for the other three reactors, causing them to suffer partial melt downs. It was nonetheless crippled by later hydrogen explosions, which blew off the building’s roof and walls.

Tepco has since reinforced the building, but experts say keeping so many fuel rods in a storage pool in the building still poses a major safety risk.

The company has built a massive steel structure next to and partly over Unit 4 to mount cranes for the operation. It will take at least until the end of 2014 to finish moving the 1,533 sets of fuel rods, including 202 unused sets, to a safer location. Each set includes about 60-80 rods.

Tepco has decided to remove the unused fuel first, before moving on to the more radioactive spent fuel. There are also three sets of fuel rods at the very end of the pool which reportedly suffered slight damage during the disaster.

Experts said the fuel rod sets may have been damaged or jammed by small pieces of debris that fell into the pool during the explosions. Some also raised concern about a major earthquake hitting during the removal work.

Hiroaki Koide, assistant professor at Kyoto University's Research Reactor Institute, told the AFP news agency the timing of the fuel rod removal was crucial as “the reactor's storage pool is in an unstable condition”.

Koide added that the whole decommissioning process would involve tasks that pose “unprecedented challenges”.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan's top government spokesman, told the BBC he hoped the operation would be done properly.

“We hope that this [process] will be conducted in a manner that will not disturb local residents, and that the removal will be done on schedule, properly and safely,” he said.

Video: Japanese tsunami sculpture created

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Green Recruitment Company: Operations Manager - Anaerobic Digestion / Biogas

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Operation...

SThree: Experienced Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £40000 per annum + OTE + Incentives + Benefits: SThree: Established f...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Maintenance Person

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care organisation take pride in del...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care organisation take pride in del...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent