VIENNA – The International Atomic Energy Agency is considering the option of a multinational mission to decommission the Fukushima No. 1 plant’s wrecked nuclear reactors, a challenge that will take decades to complete.
“The safe decommissioning (of the reactors) should be undertaken not just by Japan but should draw on the wisdom and the most advanced technologies from around the world,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in an interview Thursday.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog is planning to send an international team of experts to Japan in April to consult with local authorities about retiring the reactors.
The move to involve other advanced countries in the decommissioning efforts at the No. 1 plant could lead to the development of new technologies necessary to scrap reactors around the world as more and more reach the end of their service life.
The idea of a multilateral undertaking is also apparently aimed at addressing concern in some quarters of the global community that Japan may monopolize knowhow for reactor decommissioning, an area that will likely open up lucrative business opportunities at a time when more than 400 reactors worldwide are waiting to be retired.
Next Wednesday, the IAEA will dispatch experts to Fukushima Prefecture for a project being jointly implemented with the prefectural government to promote decontamination of areas affected by fallout from the nuclear disaster in March 2011. These experts are also expected to engage in preliminary consultations with relevant prefectural and other officials ahead of the international team’s visit in April.
According to an IAEA official, the proposed multilateral project would be based in an office in the city of Fukushima with a resident staffer.
Amano also suggested the option of creating a task force on decommissioning technology at the IAEA.
“It may be necessary to establish an advisory council, or something similar, concerning decommissioning at the IAEA,” he said. “We hope to see the world make the most of the experiences in Fukushima, and the prefecture to capitalize on experiences from around the world.”
On the decontamination work, Amano said, “We will make use of experts involved in the Chernobyl nuclear accident and other incidents.”
Residents in the affected areas feel “anxieties about whether or not it is all right to return home,” he said. “We hope to cooperate in explaining global standards and disseminating information about health issues.”
Amano signed a memorandum of understanding concerning project cooperation between the IAEA and the prefecture when a ministerial conference on nuclear safety was held in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, late last year. The agreement covers projects such as cleaning up contaminated land to allow the early return of affected residents, health care and the establishment of a human resources training center to respond to emergency situations.
The IAEA apparently hopes sending an international team of experts to Japan will dispel concerns overseas that Japanese businesses will end up controlling the reactor decommissioning market — large-scale projects loaded with vested interests.
The nuclear watchdog may also be assuming that employing technologies from around the world will help to undertake reactor decommissioning in a sustainable manner.
The Fukushima No. 1 plant, where three reactors experienced catastrophic core meltdowns following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, will likely need several decades to finish the process of dismantling the entire complex.
The centerpiece of that process is the reactor decommissioning, which will require huge expenditures. Using the best available technology will be essential in ensuring safety and security for residents in nearby areas.Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry have been devising decommissioning plans, but there appears to be a limit to what Japan can do on its own, given its lack of experience when it comes to retiring nuclear reactors.
The IAEA believes that a decommissioning regime can be worked out in terms of technology and costs by seeking support from the U.S. and Russia, both of which have experienced nuclear power plant catastrophes.
Meanwhile, an IAEA source said a major nuclear power state has filed a request with the organization for ensuring fair businesses chances from reactor dismantling.
“There is suspicion in the international community that Japan may be aiming to secure interests in decommissioning work that will be needed in various parts of the world by monopolizing technology attained in (scrapping the) Fukushima” No. 1 plant, a senior government official said in Tokyo.
Amano has long argued that Japan should not undertake reactor decommissioning alone, and the country could find itself being called on to pass on the lessons and experiences of the Fukushima disaster to the world, not just in securing the safety of atomic plants but also in reactor decommissioning.