18 Juin 2015
June 15, 2015
The Japanese government has once again revised the work schedule for decommissioning reactors at the triple-meltdown-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The last major change was in June 2013, and this one pushes back the removal of spent fuel rods from the fuel pools of the No. 1-3 reactors by as much as three years. The delay is due to unexpected difficulties preventing the escape of airborne radioactive contaminants during decontamination and wreckage clearing work.
Decommissioning reactors at the heart of one of the world's worst nuclear disasters is of course bound to be extremely difficult, and this reality is coming into sharp relief.
Progress on dismantling the Fukushima reactors has a direct bearing on both overall regional disaster recovery and when local residents will be able to finally return home. As such, we call on both the government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. to develop a reactor decommissioning strategy with a solid strategic foundation, and to thoroughly release information on the process.
The latest revisions to the decommissioning work schedule were based on the basic principle of putting the safety of locals and plant workers first. The first version of the work schedule was obsessed with speed. The result was a rash of worker injuries and deaths and other problems that ended up causing progress to be delayed. Rather than making speed top priority, it's more important to carefully and surely reduce the various risks related to the Fukushima plant.
The jobs with the highest priority under the work plan's latest iteration are the recovery of nuclear fuel rods from the fuel pools, and dealing with the vast quantities of radioactively contaminated water produced at the plant. Though these tasks are certainly important, the most difficult hurdle in the decommissioning process will be extracting the melted fuel from inside the stricken reactor vessels. Under the new schedule, this is set to start on just one of the reactors sometime in the year 2021.
That's some six years away, but the path from here to there remains foggy at best. First of all, no one knows for sure exactly what state the fuel is in or even where it is in the reactor housings.
The method for getting the fuel out is also up in the air. At first, planners thought it best to fill the reactor vessels with water to suppress the intense radiation when the operation began. This fell by the wayside, however, when it turned out to be difficult to identify damaged spots on the reactor vessels and stop water from escaping. Now, an in-air removal method is being considered, though entirely new equipment will need to be developed to perform the operation in the highly radioactive environment while at the same time preventing contaminants from getting airborne.
There are a number of research institutes and universities across Japan that are receiving government support to invent the technology needed for this reactor decommissioning work. The "control tower" for these efforts is the Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommissioning Facilitation Corp. (NDF), created by the government in August last year. The corporation is tasked with overseeing each project from basic research through to practical application, and to optimize the development process.
The NDF, however, has just 35 or so technical staff. It's an open question whether the NDF can exercise effective oversight for such a wide program with so few people. The government is trying to enhance the corporation's functions, but there have been no concrete measures forthcoming so far. At this rate, might the 30-40 year target to decommission the Fukushima reactors come under serious pressure?
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said more than once that "the national government stands on the front lines" of the efforts to deal with the decommissioning work. Then more than ever, the government must create a system to provide full and complete support for the technology research and development projects needed to finally bring the nuclear crisis to an end.