Removal Of Fuel Rods In Fukushima's Damaged Reactor Begins

The removal of the melted fuel from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan has begun, according to a report from The New York Times. The plant, which was wrecked by a tsunami in 2011, has already sent in workers to start the process of removing the first of the 566 rods which were used. They will also be removing the unused fuel units which are stored in a pool at Unit 3.

The fuel units are located high in the reactor building, which miraculously remained intact despite the disaster. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has said that the removal of the fuel at Unit 3 is likely to take two years before moving on to the other 1,000 units which remain in two additional reactors. Combined with the other reactor, experts estimate the melted fuel has amounted to about 800 tons.

According to the BBC, this latest development in the clean-up of Fukushima comes just weeks after 50 residents were allowed to return to the area close by for the first time after evacuation orders had been lifted since the disaster.

The task of removing the fuel rods takes place underwater to prevent further radiation leaks, and workers will operate cranes remotely from a control room roughly 500 meters away.

Speaking to Japan's NHK television network, plant chief Tomohiko Isogai said that safety will be a priority during the removal.

"We will watch the progress at the site as we put safety first. Our goal is not to rush the process but to carefully proceed with the decommissioning work."
Fuel rod being lifted at Fukushima power plant
Getty Images | Handout

Full details about how the melted fuel will be removed from inside the reactors are unknown, but it is said to be a "challenging" task. Radioactive debris, accidents, and high doses of radiation have already delayed the process by four years.

Additional attempts to remove the fuel have been ongoing. In 2014, TEPCO was successfully able to remove all 1,535 units at the fourth reactor and in February, a remote-controlled robot was able to remove small amounts of nuclear debris from the Unit 2 reactor.

The power plant is located about 62 kilometers southeast of Fukushima, in which more than 470,000 people were evacuated during the 2011 disaster. Despite no deaths resulting from the tsunami which damaged the plant, TEPCO has paid out compensation to those who were affected.

In 2017, three former executives from TEPCO went on trial and were charged with professional negligence, which was linked to the evacuation of a hospital.

The company -- and the Japanese government -- has said that it is looking at methods of removing the melted fuel from the three reactors later this year.