Things Are Getting Interesting

As the BBC reports, the dangerous job of removing the fuel rods from the storage pool at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has begun.


“Workers at Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear plant have begun removing fuel rods from a storage pond at the Unit 4 reactor building.  The delicate operation is seen as a necessary step in stabilising the site. It will take about two days to remove the first 22 fuel rod assemblies, plant operator Tepco says. Overall, more than 1,500 assemblies must be removed in what correspondents describe as a risky and dangerous operation set to take a year.

Experts say hydrogen explosions after the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 have made the current storage facility vulnerable to further tremors. The fuel rod assemblies are four-metre long tubes containing pellets of uranium fuel, and the fear is that some may have been damaged during the disaster.”


(emphasis added)

Below is a schematic by TEPCO showing the details of the operation. First a small crane lifts the rods out of the pool, which are then stored in special casks. The casks are then lowered to the ground by a bigger crane and transported to a safer storage pool:




Fuel rod removal in pictures.



It all looks simple enough when looking at these drawings, but there are of course many potential snags. The biggest problem is that some of the assemblies may actually have become stuck due to the damage they have suffered. Whether this has happened will only become clear once the removal operation is underway.

However, we mainly wanted to point out a specific tidbit of information that we haven't come across previously – namely:



“There are 1,331 spent fuel rods and 202 unused fuel rods to be removed”


It was known that due to a maintenance shutdown just prior to the earthquake unspent fuel rods were stored in the pool as well (incidentally, due to this shutdown, reactor number four was spared a full meltdown). We weren't aware though that altogether over 200 'hot rods' (no pun intended) are in there. That is actually quite a lot. These are the assemblies that will be the most dangerous to handle and are the potentially most harmful ones in case they accidentally go critical.

Here's hoping it all goes well – unfortunately the events thus far suggest that optimism is probably not warranted. TEPCO is widely accused of not being competent to handle the plant's decommissioning, and there is probably a kernel of truth in this allegation. However, it is something that is actually very difficult to judge from afar. We suspect that the situation has simply proved so overwhelming that mistakes would have been made and unexpected developments would have taken place anyway, even if someone else had been in charge of the decommissioning task.

Anyway, what is probably the most dangerous phase of the decommissioning has now begun.






Dear Readers!

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