Damaged Fuel Rods Removed At Fukushima Nuclear Plant

Workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant successfully removed some radioactive fuel from one of the damaged reactors on Monday. It's an important first step, but there's a long way to go before the situation at the plant can be said to be completely under control

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Today at Japan's ruined Fukushima nuclear power plant, workers began the removal of nuclear fuel from one of the four damaged reactors. The removal is an important step in the clean up of the site, but leaks and other problems continue to plague the plant.

And joining me to discuss the latest is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hi.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi.

SIEGEL: So what have workers actually done?

BRUMFIEL: Well, first, you need to think back to March of 2011, when a huge earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima plant. Three reactors melted down and a fourth reactor caught fire. And ever since, that reactor, Reactor 4, has been a big worry. It wasn't running at the time but it had more than 1,500 fuel bundles being stored in a pool right above the reactor core. Those bundles are a big threat at the plant. People worry that if there was another earthquake, or something else happens they might release more radioactivity.

So the Tokyo Electric Power Company wants them out of the Unit 4 fuel pool. So what they had to do was clear off all the rubble above the building, build a new structure, put a crane in. And now what they're doing is today they've started using the crane to lift the fuel bundles up one at a time, and move them to a big, sort of heavy cask at one end of the pool. It's a big sort of reinforced container made of steel. They're going to lift the cast out of the pool and then carry it to another location onsite where it can be stored more safely.

SIEGEL: How dangerous is this work, Geoff?

BRUMFIEL: Well, people move these fuel bundles around all the time during normal operations at a nuclear power plant, but this is not a normal situation. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO, they say: Look, we've put a lot of safety measures in place and it's very unlikely anything will happen; it certainly won't be as bad as the initial accident.

SIEGEL: Well, in the overall project of cleaning up Fukushima, how big a step is this?

BRUMFIEL: Well, this is a piece of good news. It's rare that I get to come on the air and talk about good news at Fukushima. And it is a big step in the sense that it's a first step. But there is still a long way to go. There are three other reactors that have melted down. They have fuel, not just in the pools above the reactors but in the cores themselves. That fuel has melted down. It's going to take a very, very long time to even figure out to get that fuel out.

Then, on top of it all, the site is full of radioactive water. And that water continues to leak out from tanks where it's being and from the plant itself. TEPCO has been talking about this wall of ice that they want to build around the plant to stop that.

SIEGEL: That sounds like a pretty ingenious plan. Are they actually going to do that?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. Well, these underground walls are built all the time. And right now, TEPCO is conducting feasibility studies to see how well it might work in this case. Those studies should be done in March of next year. But a full wall won't be built until 2015 at the earliest.

SIEGEL: I mean 2015 will be four years since the tsunami. It seems like a very long time to wait.

BRUMFIEL: It definitely is. And this is the thing about the nuclear plant: even the fuel removal process we were talking about earlier will take over a year to complete. When you're dealing with a situation like this you have to be very slow, very deliberate to make sure you don't make the problem worse.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel.

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