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Tokyo Electric Power Co. on Nov. 18 started removing some 1,500 nuclear fuel assemblies from a pool atop the No. 4 reactor at its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The work, scheduled to continue through December 2014, is the first step in decommissioning of the whole plant, expected to take 30 to 40 years. Because the removal of nuclear fuel is extremely dangerous, Tepco must do it with utmost care. It also should keep local governments and residents near the plant fully informed about the progress of the fuel removal so that they can quickly take necessary action if an accident occurs.

On March 15, 2011, in the early stages of the triple meltdown of the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 reactors at the plant triggered by the 3/11 megaquake and tsunami, the building housing the No. 4 reactor suffered a hydrogen explosion that blew its roof off. At the time, the core of the No. 4 reactor did not contain any nuclear fuel because it was undergoing a regular inspection. But in a water pool on the fifth floor of the building were stored 1,535 nuclear fuel assemblies, each 4.5 meters long — 1,331 of them containing spent nuclear fuel, which is highly radioactive. In the first part of the removal work, assemblies of fresh nuclear fuel will be removed.

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