Perilous enterprise to remove Fukushima No.4’s fuel rods

A Mistake Now Could Release 14,000 Times More Radiation than Hiroshima By James Burgess | Sat, 28 September 2013  Lately the bad news emanating from Japan is that the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant have been leaking thousands of gallons of water ever since the earthquake that struck it in 2011. There is a high chance that the radioactive water could hit Korea, China, and the West Coast of North America, and it is only likely to get worse with time as Tepco, the Japanese utility and operator of the power plant, is unsure how to stop the leaks.

Now however there is worse news that could prove dangerous to much of the world, and again Tepco could be responsible.

At Fukushima, used nuclear fuel rods are stored in pools and, especially at reactor 4, some of these pools are damaged and at risk of completely breaking open in the event of another earthquake. If one of the pools were to collapse or catch fire, then the impacts would affect the world. Arnie Gunderson, a nuclear expert, and Helen Caldicott, a physician, have even suggested that if this occurs then people should evacuate the Northern Hemisphere. And Akio Matsumura, a former advisor for the UN, has called the situation “an issue of human survival.”

Tepco could be responsible for unleashing this devastation on the world as starting in November they have decided to begin an operation to remove 400 tonnes of fuel rod assemblies, on their own. Aworkforce of thousands is preparing to work on the fuel rod pools at the instable reactor 4 in order to relocate them to a safer location.

The spent fuel, which contains plutonium, one of the most deadly substances in the universe, will prove to be a very delicate procedure. If a fuel rod is broken, cracked, or dropped whilst being removed, then it could cause an explosion, a meltdown, or a fire; all of which would release radionuclides into the atmosphere, and result in the evacuation of Tokyo and much of Japan.

The more than 1,300 fuel rod assemblies tightly packed into the building at reactor 4 contain enough radiation equivalent to 14,000 times the radiation released during the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Each fuel rod assembly weighs close to 300kg and measure 4.5 metres long. The reactor 4 building contains 1,331 of spent assemblies and 202 unused assemblies.

Working completely underwater, the fuel assemblies will be pulled off their racks where they are currently stored, and then inserted into a heavy steel chamber, which shields the radiation. Then they will be removed from the pool, lowered to ground level and transported across the plant to a storage pool in an undamaged building.

Toshio Kimura, a former technician at Tepco, said that “previously Previously it was a computer-controlled process that memorized the exact locations of the rods down to the millimeter and now they don’t have that. It has to be done manually so there is a high risk that they will drop and break one of the fuel rods.”

Whilst aware of the inherent dangers, Tepco is confident that it can carry out the operation safely.


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