U.S. to help with No. 1 shutdown

by Mari Yamaguchi

AP

Tokyo Electric Power Co. will work with the U.S. Department of Energy in decommissioning the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and the relentless on-site accumulation of radioactive water, President Naomi Hirose said.

Hirose said he agreed to accept the offer of help during talks with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz as they visited Fukushima No. 1 on Friday to inspect preparations to remove fuel rods from the reactor 4 storage pool.

The complex has recently seen a series of setbacks, including highly toxic water gushing from storage tanks into the Pacific. The incidents, many of them caused by human error, have added to concerns about operator Tepco’s ability to safely dismantle the No. 1 plant, which suffered multiple meltdowns after being wrecked by in March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Following criticism of its perceived reluctance to accept foreign assistance, Japan has recently begun to show more willingness to do so.

Final preparations are being made to remove fuel rods from the uncovered cooling pool of unit 4 — one of four reactor buildings damaged in the crisis, and the one considered at highest risk. Removing them is the first major step in a decommissioning process that is expected to take decades.

The fuel removal at reactor 4 was given preliminary approval by regulators Wednesday and is set to start by the middle of the month, following a final go-ahead.

“As Japan continues to chart its sovereign path forward on the cleanup at the Fukushima site and works to determine the future of (its) energy economy, the United States stands ready to continue assisting our partners in this daunting yet indispensable task,” Moniz said in a statement late Friday.

He said a Japan-U.S. commission will meet in Washington this week to strengthen cooperation in civil nuclear research and development, as well as the Fukushima No. 1 cleanup, emergency response and regulatory issues.

In an interview with NHK, Hirose said: “We will work together to tackle many challenges toward decommissioning. I have high hopes that we will be able to benefit from U.S. experience and expertise at Fukushima No. 1.”

He said the two sides hope to contribute to global nuclear power by sharing technology in stabilizing and decommissioning the plant.

Despite public fears over potential radiation risks from the No. 1 plant, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has pushed for a restart of the country’s other nuclear power stations, which are currently all shut down for safety checks.

Moniz said he expects atomic power to remain a crucial part of the energy mix around the world as nations try to mitigate global warming. In a speech Thursday in Tokyo, he said “the success of the cleanup also has global significance. So we all have a direct interest in seeing that the next steps are taken well, efficiently and safely.”

During Friday’s tour of Fukushima No. 1, Moniz, escorted by Hirose, inspected the reactor 4 pool area as well as storage tanks for contaminated water, radioactive water treatment units and other facilities.

The reactor 4 building, damaged by hydrogen explosions in March 2011, remains a source of international concern about a catastrophic open-air meltdown in case of a pool collapse, despite Tepco’s repeated reassurances that it has reinforced the pool and that the building can withstand another major quake.