TOKYO (AP) — Japan's government on Tuesday approved a revision to its 30-to-40-year plan to decommission the Fukushima nuclear plant, delaying by two more years the removal of radioactive fuel rods in two of the three reactors damaged in the 2011 disaster.
Six-and-half years since an earthquake and tsunami struck the plant on Japan's northeastern coast, the amount of contaminated water that must be pumped out and treated every day has significantly decreased, and remote-controlled robots have seen a limited view of melted fuel debris inside the reactor. Still, the exact location of the melted fuel inside the reactors is largely unknown and robots that can withstand the high radiation enough to work there are still being developed.
The decommissioning plan, which is the second one approved since the disaster, still calls for the melted nuclear fuel to be removed starting in 2021, citing recent findings on more efficient methods.
But the plan still lacks details on the duration of the melted fuel removal, how the radioactive waste will ultimately be stored and the final status of the plant itself, raising doubts about if the cleanup can really be completed in 40 years.
Among the highest risks at the plant are the 1,573 units of fuel rods, which are cooled with water in pools that are not enclosed within the reactor building. The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., had planned to start moving them to safer storage by the end of fiscal 2021, but the latest plan says two more years are needed for reactor Units 1 and 2. Removal at the Unit 3 reactor is set to start next year as planned.
Removing the reactors' melted fuel is by far the hardest part of the decommissioning. An underwater robot in July saw large amounts of rocks and solid lumps, apparently melted nuclear fuel mixed with melted and mangled equipment and internal structures, on the floor of the Unit 3 primary containment chamber. The search for melted fuel in Units 1 and 2 has been unsuccessful due to structural damage and extremely high radiation. Despite the unknowns, debris removal methods will be finalized in 2019 and the actual removal is set to start at one of the reactors in 2021 as planned.
Japan still has no plan for the waste that comes out of the plant during decommissioning. The government and TEPCO are to compile a basic plan during fiscal 2018 when melted debris removal begins.
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