Skip to main content

Operators begin hazardous fuel removal process at Fukushima nuclear plant

By Paul Armstrong and Kevin Voigt, CNN
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 0916 GMT (1716 HKT)
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
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0254 GMT (1054 HKT)
A decade on from devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Red Cross' Matthias Schmale says that the lessons learned have made us safer.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0024 GMT (0824 HKT)
As soon as word broke that "The Interview" will hit some theaters, celebrations erupted across social media -- including from the stars of the film.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Did a rogue hacker -- or the U.S. government -- cut the cord for the regime's Internet?
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Monaco's newborn royals, Princess Gabriella and Crown Prince Jacques Honore Rainier, posed for their first official photos with their parents.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1706 GMT (0106 HKT)
Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the world wide web, gives a speech on April 18, 2012 in Lyon, central France, during the World Wide Web 2012 international conference on April 18, 2012 in Lyon.
What's next for the Internet? Acclaimed scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee shares his insights.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0822 GMT (1622 HKT)
The United States and North Korea have long been locked in a bitter cycle of escalating and deescalating tensions. But the current cyber conflict may be especially hard to predict.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2100 GMT (0500 HKT)
A chilling video shows Boko Haram executing dozens of non-Muslims.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1134 GMT (1934 HKT)
New planes, new flight tests ... but will we get cheaper airfares?
December 21, 2014 -- Updated 1746 GMT (0146 HKT)
The killing of two cops could not have happened at a worse time for a city embroiled in a public battle over police-community relations, Errol Louis says.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 0251 GMT (1051 HKT)
The gateway to Japan's capital, Tokyo Station, is celebrating its centennial this month -- and it has never looked better.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Unicef has warned that more than 1.7 million children in conflict-torn areas of eastern Ukraine face an "extremely serious" situation.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1701 GMT (0101 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT