Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Belated Cleanup Begins at Fukushima

Those who misread the news might imagine that the process of dismantling the damaged nuclear reactors at the site of the Fukushima disaster has now begun. No doubt the power company involved would like you to see the story that way, but the actual reactor disassembly is still many years away. The new work this week concerns the fuel rods, essentially nuclear waste, which must be removed from onsite storage before they do any further harm. The fuel rods are stored upstairs from the reactors in structures resembling swimming pools, an arrangement that presents a wide range of possible problems. The earthquake itself may have disarranged some of the metal rods. Others may have softened and bent as the water supply in the pools became unreliable in the following three or four days. Subsequent explosions in the outer shells of most of the reactor buildings sprayed debris into the pools, debris that cannot be removed until after the fuel rods are taken away. Yet some rods may be stuck in the debris.

In an undamaged reactor, moving fuel rods is a delicate operation, but all in a day’s work. With all the damage at Fukushima, removing the nuclear waste may take years. The hope is that it can be completed before the next major earthquake. The more difficult cleanup below can’t really get started until the nuclear waste is moved out of harm’s way.