The government will team up with experts from the United States and France to develop new technologies to extract melted fuel from the reactors at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant, an official said Monday.
Removal of the melted rods at the nuclear plant is one of the biggest challenges of the mammoth cleanup, a project which official estimates say will take four decades.
Scientists have long warned the technology required for the complex and potentially dangerous task does not yet exist and will have to be invented.
Entombing the uranium rods in concrete and effectively abandoning the site — as was done after the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 — has been ruled out by the government as politically unacceptable, leaving innovation as the only possible solution.
The science and technology ministry said it will work with the U.S. Energy Department and the French National Research Agency on the project. This is seen as a major step toward eventual decommissioning, which is expected to begin in 2021.
“This is the first basic research led by the government designed to help decommission Fukushima No. 1 after Tepco worked together with its partners overseas at the private level,” a ministry official said, referring to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s operator.
Under the plan, the U.S. side will help Japan develop equipment and technology to handle and dispose of highly-radioactive waste during decommissioning work, the official said.
France and Japan will jointly develop remote-control technology, including robotic and image processing expertise that can withstand high-radiation environments, he said.
The Japanese government plans to finance the projects by spending part of its Fukushima technology development budget, which is worth ¥3 billion.
Last Friday, Japan marked the fifth anniversary of the offshore earthquake that sent a huge tsunami crashing into the Tohoku coast. Around 18,500 people died, cities were flattened, and swaths of farmland were destroyed.
The water also knocked out cooling systems at Fukushima, sending reactors into meltdown and spreading radiation over a wide area.
Although no one is recorded as having died as a direct result of the nuclear accident, tens of thousands of people were uprooted, with many still unable to return home because of persistent contamination.
Cleaning up Fukushima and making the area habitable again is a crucial plank of government policy, with Tokyo keen to prove nuclear power is a viable form of energy production for resource-poor Japan.