Japanese utility removing nuclear fuel rods from Fukushima

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Originally published on November 25, 2013

The Tokyo Electric Power Company began extracting used nuclear fuel rods stored in one of the damaged reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on November 18.

Used fuel rods continue to emit heat and radiation and need to be cooled for three to five years before they can be properly disposed. These rods are bundled and stored in circulating pools within the reactors.

TEPCO plans to extract 400 tons of spent fuel from Reactor 4 at the power plant. This will be performed by two 273-ton mobile cranes built on a metal frame constructed adjacent to the reactor building. The metal frame has been erected on a foundation separate from the building and does not impose further strain on the reactor.

After the initial step of cleaning out debris from the cooling pools, the cranes will extract the fuel rod bundles individually and place them into cooling casks to be transported to pools in other reactors. This process is estimated to take up to 18 months.

Used fuel rods are still loaded with radioactivity. Dropping or damaging the bundles during the transfer process could trigger an explosion many times more severe than the one in March 2011.

A total of 1,331 used fuel rods and 202 unused fuel rods are stored in Reactor 4's cooling pool, according to the Nuclear Regulation Authority. These rods contain in total 14,000 times the radiation released in the atomic bomb that struck Hiroshima in 1945.

Reactor 4 also contains 10 times more Cesium-137, a radioactive isotope known to pose one of the greatest risks to health, than Chernobyl. Total withdrawal from the power plant will be imposed in the event of an explosion, according to a Voice of America report.

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