Fukushima Cleanup Could Take More Than 40 Years, IAEA Says

Cleanup at the Fukushima nuclear plant could take more than 40 years, according to a UN nuclear watchdog. The plant, which was badly damaged during the 2011 Japan earthquake and resulting tsunami, is in the process of being decommissioned.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team, Juan Carlos Lentijo, added that the plant’s operator should improve the facility’s stability in the meantime.

Lentijo also stated on Monday that damage at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant is so complex that it is nearly impossible to say how long it may take to clean up. The government, as well as plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., have predicted that cleanup of the crippled plant could take up to 40 years.

The reactors at the Fukushima plant must be kept cool, and the plant must stay safe and stable while while workers decommission it. But they still have to develop technology and equipment that will be able to operate under the fatally high radiation levels currently inside the plant.

The equipment will have to remove the melted fuel caused when the plant’s reactors went into meltdown following the tsunami. The massive wave knocked out power to the plant’s cooling systems. Lentijo added, “You have to adopt a very cautious position to ensure that you always are working on the safe side.”

But the plant’s current power, from makeshift equipment set up to stop the original meltdown, suffers frequent glitches. The plant suffered almost a dozen problems in the past few weeks ranging from power outages to leaks of highly radioactive water from underground water pools.

The problems have caused concern for the IAEA and others on whether the plant can stay stable through the whole decommissioning process. Lentijo, who is an expert on nuclear fuel cycles and waste technology, expects more problems to come at Fukushima. He stated:

“It is expectable in such a complex site, additional incidence will occur as it happened in the nuclear plants under normal operations. It is important to have a very good capability to identify as promptly as possible failures and to establish compensatory measures.”

The 13-member IAEA mission plans to release a report on the Fukushima nuclear plant next month.

[Image via kawamoto takuo]