Nuclear Energy

Published on January 15th, 2014 | by Sandy Dechert


Fukushima Fuel Transfer Reaches 10% Milestone

January 15th, 2014 by  

Fukushima nuclear power station unit 4 operations commence.Fukushima nuclear power station as unit 4 operations commenced (screen shot from euronews broadcast, November 11, 2013.) TEPCO announced 10% completion of the spent fuel transfer this week.

Tokyo Electric Power Company has reached a minor milestone in cleaning up the mess that started at its Fukushima nuclear power station on Friday, March 11, 2011 (March 12, U.S.). A subsea earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku, the resulting tsunami, and an unfortunate series of human miscalculations have dogged the ruined facility for almost three years.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant originally comprised six boiling water reactors of a half-century-old General Electric design. The installation was one of the world’s 25 largest nuclear power stations. TEPCO currently believes that after the tsunami, units 1-3 suffered meltdowns, perhaps even through the floors of the buildings and into the soil.

However, the situation in unit 4 merited the most immediate attention. There, the building had partly collapsed. New and spent (used) fuel rods stored in temporary containment 100 feet above ground level were emitting radiation to the atmosphere.

In danger of internal collision due to seismic events or spillage from the damaged secondary containment, this exposed fuel has threatened Japan with a massive uncontrollable nuclear chain reaction. After completing precautionary activities, on November 18, 2013, the company began a delicate task of rearrangement. Plant workers started moving the assemblies of nuclear fuel rods racked in the upper-story pool to safer ground-level storage in a centralized pool common to all the damaged reactors.

As well as the hazard of spontaneous explosions, spent fuel rods can release considerable heat and quickly lethal levels of radiation. Robot cranes and other human-directed machinery are necessary to move these very hazardous materials. The unit 4 cooling pond contains 1,533 fuel assemblies, of which 1,331 have been used and 202 are unirradiated (fresh) ones. Some of the fuel assemblies are known to be damaged.


Today, TEPCO plant personnel completed 10% of the transfers that must be done to stabilize the fuel from reactor unit 4. TEPCO describes the operations being undertaken as follows:

  1. Relocate the fuel assemblies stored in the fuel rack inside the spent fuel pool, one by one, into a transportation container (cask) underwater using a fuel handling machine.
  2. Lift up the cask from the spent fuel pool using a crane.
  3. Conduct, on the floor as high as the operating floor, such works as closing the lid of the cask and decontaminating the cask.
  4. Lift down the cask toward the ground using the crane to lay it on a trailer.
  5. Transport the cask to the common pool using the trailer.

TEPCO expects it will take about a year to make all the Unit 4 transfers. Hundred-ton casks of fuel have now been transported to ground-level storage seven times, for a total of 154 transferred assemblies. Those who have doubted TEPCO’s capability find some reassurance in the apparently smooth progress of this work and about the 90% of transfers still to be made. Too, it bodes well that TEPCO has been able to extract both spent and new fuel assemblies during this time. The company can plan further withdrawals of both from a position of greater certainty.

The plan for unit 4 generated confidence in some observers initially, but considerable doubt in others. Among those urging caution were scientists of both Japan and other nations and some highly placed Japanese officials, including a former prime minister. The United States has expressed support and dispatched both official and unofficial observers. Internally, it appears that the Japanese people are uncertain and divided about the company’s future use of nuclear power. Political wrangles over the issue have become commonplace, and the population has not reduced its distrust of both TEPCO and (to a lesser degree) the inconsistent government.

The other three damaged reactors at Fukushima hold additional dangers. Serious leaks from the plant to groundwater and the Pacific have already been discovered. These have apparently resulted from small ruptures within the many tanks and pipes used to hold radioactive cooling water. Recent reports of Fukushima-originated radiation currently endangering the west coastal and interior United States have been debunked. A new meltdown in unit 3, also reported by some news outlets, has apparently not occurred, although emissions to the air from that reactor have been noted. Further explosions seem unlikely at present.

As we noted here and in our sister publication, Planetsave, earlier on the operation,

“The company is proceeding from what nuclear experts agree is the easiest task to the most difficult: safely coping with the molten fuel released by the other three affected reactors somewhere below the ground’s surface.”

Units 5 and 6 of the power station suffered no critical damage from the 2011 storm and TEPCO initially hoped to restart them, but Japan’s government views them as part of the general disaster area and has closed them down completely. Both a large and powerful offshore wind farm and a capacious Toshiba-backed solar photovoltaic field near Fukushima are in the works and can be expected to offset some of the crushing burden of Japan’s recent oil and gas expenditures needed to replace lost nuclear power. Also, since the first of the year, major solar players have just announced two far-reaching partnerships in Japan. TEPCO expects it will take 40 years to decommission the entire Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

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About the Author

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."

  • Adam Selene

    Bullshit. 2.4 MILLION pounds of fuel was in their “inventory”. How much of it escaped? Probably ALL of it. This is the end of life on this planet for at least a million years. Nukers are SCUMBAG MURDERERS.

  • captainwiggins

    This just in: TEPCO and GE officials have moved their families to Argentina.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Actually Paraguay.

      Where 1000% of the electricity comes from hydro. (They sell a lot to their neighbors.)

  • I call total B##L S##T on this story. The fuel storage pool in reactor 4 had a total coolant loss – causing a zirconium fuel rod fire and huge release of deadly isotopes into the atmosphere. The fire burned for days – causing the total destruction of the pools system and building. The fuel rods totally melted and poured out the side of the building. All of this is confirmed in NRC documents of their specialist on site in Fukushima. Instead of regurgitating the Nuke industry lies – this journalist ought to do real journalism. READ NRC FOIA documents detailing the reality here:

    Wake up public. This is a growing catastrophe which will impact everybody in this lifettime.

    • JS

      Exactly correct.

  • patb2009

    this is probably the first bit of good news. The fuel should really go from the Central pool to dry casks and be stored offsite. The entire Fukushima reactor site is far too dangerous and unstable to warrant leaving fuel there.

    • and where would you like the fuel to be put ?
      They are admitting that they have an increasing problem with the waste water tanks due to a form of radiation reaction they should have already known before trying to store the billions of dirty water onsite.

  • Matt

    The good news “10% of one storage tank move and no mess-up yet” the bad news “that was the easiest part”. They haven’t tried moving any of the ones that they thought would be an issue yet. And that is 10% of those at unit 4 (year to finish rest) then can start on units 1-3. Keep your fingers and toes crossed.

    • joaquin

      …and after that they can recover the melted cores…not

  • tibi stibi

    are there still people how think this is a good idea????

    • Shiggity

      Nuclear fan boys are hard to deal with. We have the fossil fuel people who think coal and natural gas will last forever, we have the nuclear people who think we can easily go to 100% nuclear and it will be really “cheap”, and we have people who want to go 100% solar and wind.

      Let the bloodbath begin.

      • tibi stibi

        maybe we can agree that everyone will live next to there favorite energy generator 😉

        (i already sleep under mine 😉 )

  • Suzuki Hiroshi

    Leukemia student in Fukushima High School!
    January 14th, 2014 Save Kids Japan

    Take responsibility of occurence of leukemia! The Fukushima Education Board and the Fukushima High School principal play down the radiation issue.
    Do NOT make another student suffer from leukemia. Stop all the outside activities at Fukushima High School.

    Fukushima High School students are made to clean up the swimming pool without any protective gears.
    Actually a young leukemia patient emerged from careless Fukushima High School as in the above, and this has NOT made through a major media.

    After Fukushima accident, Japan’s Ministry of Labor, Health and Welfare suspended collecting data of various diseases including leukemia in Fukushima, though the data had been collected before Fukushima accident.

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