The industry ministry on Monday unveiled a revised plan to remove molten nuclear fuel debris from the meltdown-hit Fukushima No. 1 power plant in 2021 — a process said to be the biggest hurdle to decommissioning the six-reactor facility.
Work to remove the debris should start with the No. 2 reactor, according to the mid- to long-term road map released by the government.
Designating a specific time frame for the first time, the plan also calls for completing the removal of 4,741 fuel rods left inside the cooling pools for reactor Nos. 1 to 6 by 2031.
“As more people return and rebuilding progresses in the areas around the No. 1 plant, we will take measures based on the basic principle of balancing rebuilding and decommissioning,” said Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshi Kajiyama, who heads the state team tasked with decommissioning the heavily damaged plant.
The plan, revised for the fifth time, maintains the general outlook for finishing the cleanup within 30 to 40 years of the triple meltdown, which was triggered by the mega-quake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.
But, given issues that have halted work and caused delays so far, it remains uncertain whether the plan will proceed as scheduled.
Here is a look at some of the challenges facing Fukushima No. 1:
Melted fuel debris
By far the toughest challenge is removing the 800 tons of nuclear fuel that melted in the three reactors before dropping from their cores and hardening at the bottom of the primary containment vessels.
Over the past two years, Tepco has made progress gathering details mainly from two of the reactors. In February, a small telescopic robot sent inside the No. 2 reactor showed that small pieces of debris can come off and be lifted out. Thus debris removal is scheduled to begin there by the end of 2021.
Earlier, assessments of the No. 3 reactor were hampered by high radiation and water levels in the PCVs. A robot survey at the No. 1 reactor also failed from extremely high radiation.
Experts say a 30- to 40-year completion decommissioning target is too optimistic. Some doubt that removing all of the fuel is even doable and suggest an approach like Chernobyl — contain the reactors and wait until radioactivity naturally fades.
Together, the three reactors have more than 1,500 units of mostly spent nuclear fuel rods inside that must be kept cool in pools of water. They’re among the highest risks at the plant because the pools are uncovered, and loss of water from structural damage or sloshing in the event of another major quake could cause them to melt and release massive radiation.
The manager of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., started removing rods from the No. 3 reactor pool in April and aims to get all 566 out by March 2021. Removal of rods from units 1 and 2 is to begin in 2023.
By 2031, Tepco plans to remove thousands of rods at the two units that survived the tsunami and store them in dry casks on the compound. Over 6,300 fuel rods were in the six reactor cooling pools at the time, and only the pool at No. 4 has been emptied.
The government and Tepco have been unable to get rid of the more than 1 million tons of radioactive water that has been treated and stored on site, fearing public repercussions. The utility has managed to cut the volume by pumping up and diverting groundwater upstream, as well as by installing a costly underground “ice wall” around the reactor buildings to keep water from entering.
Tepco says it only has space for up to 1.37 million tons until summer 2022, raising speculation it might release the tainted water after the 2020 Olympics. Tepco and experts say that the tanks are hampering decommissioning work and that the space they occupy must be freed up to build storage for the debris and other radioactive materials to be removed. There is also the risk that the tanks might fail and release their contents in the event of another quake, tsunami or flood.
Experts say a controlled release of the water into the ocean is the only realistic option, one that will take decades. For years, a government panel has been discussing methods amid opposition from fishermen and residents who fear it will damage their products and their health.
Japan has yet to develop a plan to dispose of the highly radioactive waste that will come out of the reactors. Under the road map, the government and Tepco will compile a plan sometime after the first decade of removal work ends in 2031.
Managing the waste will require new technologies to compact it and reduce its toxicity. Tepco and the government say they plan to build a temporary storage site for the waste. But finding a site and getting public consent to store it there will be nearly impossible, raising doubts the cleanup can be finished within 40 years.
Securing a workforce for the decades-long project is yet another challenge, especially in a country with a rapidly aging and declining population. Tepco announced plans to hire foreign workers for the decommissioning process under Japan’s new visa program to attract unskilled foreign labor, but put it on hold after receiving government instructions on careful planning to address concerns about language problems and safety. Universities are also struggling to attract students in nuclear science, a formerly elite major that has become unpopular since the Fukushima crisis.