Removal of reactor fuel won’t start until 2021

Removal of fuel that melted down in reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant will start in 2021, and demolition of the reactors will not be completed until decades from now, according to a government draft of a mid- to long-term schedule for a clean-up of the site.

Due to the unprecedented nature of the crisis, estimating a timeline for its resolution involves the challenge of predicting what problems might arise.

The draft, released Saturday, was compiled by a study group headed by Japan Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Shunsuke Kondo and comprising representatives of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and nuclear reactor manufacturers.

The study group estimated the time needed to remove fuel from the Fukushima plant’s Nos. 1-3 reactors, all of which suffered meltdown, by referring to events after the nuclear crisis at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.

It was not until six years after the start of the Three Mile Island crisis that collection of molten fuel actually began.

Damage to reactors and radiation contamination at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are much worse than at Three Mile Island.

The study group therefore estimated it will be 10 years–almost twice as long–before work to remove the fuel from the reactors can begin.

Demolition of the reactors cannot commence until radiation levels near the reactors have fallen to safe levels, and necessary preparation work is expected to take several decades.

Collection of spent fuel rods that are at present being kept in an interim storage facility is expected to start in 2014, as they suffered only minor damage.

But safe removal of the fuel will require the development of new technology. The fuel was transformed into a lavalike state during meltdown, and has since solidified, posing unprecedented technical challenges.

In April, TEPCO announced a schedule for bringing the Fukushima crisis under control, but it did not include a long-term plan for demolishing the reactors.

(Jul. 12, 2011)

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