This image released by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) shows an operation to remove fuel from a cooling pool at the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Photo: TEPCO via AP

Fukushima melted fuel removal to begin in 2021


Japan’s economy and industry ministry proposed a revision Monday to its decades-long road map to clean up the radioactive mess at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which was wrecked by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Nearly nine years after the accident, the decommissioning of the plant, where three reactors melted, remains largely an uncertainty. The revised road map, to be formally approved later this month, lacks details on how the complex should look at the end but maintains a 30- to 40-year target to finish.

A look at some of the challenges in decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi plant:


By far the toughest challenge is to remove the 800 tons of nuclear fuel in the three reactors that melted, fell from the cores and hardened at the bottom of their primary containment vessels.

In the past two years, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) has made progress in gathering details mainly from two of the three reactors. In February, a small telescopic robot sent inside the No. 2 reactor showed that small pieces of debris can come off and be lifted out. The milestone step of debris removal is scheduled to begin at the No. 2 reactor by the end of 2021.

Earlier, assessment at the No. 3 reactor was hampered by high radiation and water levels in its primary containment vessel. A robotic survey at the No. 1 reactor was unsuccessful due to extremely high radiation levels.

Experts say a 30- to 40-year completion target for the decommissioning is too optimistic. Some have raised doubts if removing all of the melted fuel is doable and suggest an approach like Chernobyl — contain the reactors and wait until radioactivity naturally decreases.


Together, the three melted reactors have more than 1,500 units of mostly used nuclear fuel rods still inside that must be kept cool in pools of water. They’re among the highest risks at the plant because the pools are uncovered, and loss of water from structural damage or sloshing in the event of another major earthquake could cause fuel rods inside to melt and release massive radiation.

TEPCO started removing the fuel rods from the Unit 3 pool in April 2019 and aims to get all 566 removed by March 2021. Removal of the rods from reactors 1 and 2 is to begin in 2023. By 2031, TEPCO also plans to remove thousands at two other units that survived the tsunami to be stored in dry casks on the compound. More than 6,300 fuel rods were in six reactor cooling pools at the time of the accident, and only the Unit 4 pool has been emptied.


The government and TEPCO have been unable to get rid of the more than 1 million tons of radioactive water that has been treated and stored, fearing public repercussions. The utility has managed to cut the volume of water by pumping up groundwater upstream and installing a costly underground “ice wall” around the reactor buildings to keep the water from running into the area.

TEPCO says it has space to store only up to 1.37 million tons until the summer of 2022, raising speculation that the water may be released after the Tokyo Olympics next year. TEPCO and experts say the tanks get in the way of decommissioning work and they need to free up the space to build storage for debris removed and other radioactive materials. The tanks also pose risks if they were to spill out their contents in another major earthquake, tsunami or flood.

Experts say the controlled release of the water into the ocean is the only realistic option, which takes decades. For years, a government panel has been discussing methods amid opposition from fishermen and residents who fear a negative image and potential health impacts.


Japan has yet to develop a plan to dispose of the highly radioactive waste that will come out of the reactors. Under the road map, the government and TEPCO will compile a plan sometime after the first decade of debris removal ending in 2031.

Managing the waste will require new technologies to compact it and reduce its toxicity. TEPCO and the government say they plan to build a temporary storage site for the waste and debris that are removed from the reactors. But finding a site and getting public consent to store the waste would be almost impossible, raising doubts that the cleanup can be finished within 40 years.


Securing a workforce for the decades-long project is a challenge, especially in a country with a rapidly aging and declining population. TEPCO has announced plans to hire foreign workers for the decommissioning under Japan’s new policy allowing more unskilled foreign labor, but it put it on hold following government instructions on careful planning to address concerns about language and safety. Universities are also struggling to attract students in nuclear science, a formerly elite major that has become unpopular since the Fukushima accident.

© Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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"........  lacks details ......."

Probably not just "those details".

They still got no idea what's going on and how to take care of Fukushima.

But once again, everything is safe, under control and no problems.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

But! I distinctly remember Abe telling the IOC that the clean up of Fukushima Dai-Ichi was under control. It doesn't seem like it's under control at all. Is it possible he was just lying to influence the IOC? Or, is his comment 'under control' left up for interpretation? Did he mean, it is under control for now and they will wait until after the Olympics to start all the really dangerous work like, removing and storing the fuel rods? What a complete gip! I'm still disgusted by their plans to release a millions tons of irradiated water into the sea, especially after they have admitted it is not fully filtered and contains a lot more than just tritium.

If you haven't seen the old sci-fi movie, China Syndrome it would be a good idea to do so. It could very well become a reality at Fukushima Dai-Ichi. Also, I don't think it's a good idea to be living in Japan when they start this catastrophe waiting to happen. One slip up and the whole of Kanto will be irradiated.

7 ( +10 / -3 )

Ah, so when Abe and his cronies said the cores aren’t melting down and the situation was all under control, they were lying? Got it.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

@Disillusioned: you can always move somewhere close to the Hanford Site, I heard Columbia River is very clean.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

I guess Japan should learn from America about how to deal with this nuclear disaster. I am ironic, of course. More people should be aware about what is happening at Hanford, since they think it's only Japan that can't deal with nuclear waste. Some Americans are more afraid about Fukushima than their own nuclear disaster and it's really absurd, because the effects of what is happening at Hanford will hit America way more than Fukushima.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Fukushima is used more by the Anti-Japan crowd to criticize and shame Japan over a disaster which involved a magnitude 9 Earthquake, followed by a massive Tsunami, which hit an old nuclear power plant who was ready to be decommissioned in the following year.

As a country with limited resources, you have limited options... that's the reality.

-9 ( +1 / -10 )

@Disillusioned: I am Italian living in Italy. I am not afraid about Fukushima or Hanford, the major risks for my Country are the old nuclear plants in France and Slovenia, hoping that nothing bad can happen also at Chernobyl "new cover". My point was that I often see some people being more afraid and obsessed with Fukushima than with nuclear risks/disasters closer to them, and they speak like if it's only Japan struggling with these problems. The truth is that human beings can't deal properly with this technology. By using the Fukushima tragedy only to discredit Japan how some do, it's simply stupid to people like me with a good knowledge of the nuclear problem worldwide.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

@Alex Becu: an old nuclear plant projected by an American company, GE.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

Mathematically speaking, dump the water. Pertinent and important overall.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

I guess Japan should learn from America about how to deal with this nuclear disaster. I am ironic, of course. More people should be aware about what is happening at Hanford, since they think it's only Japan that can't deal with nuclear waste. Some Americans are more afraid about Fukushima than their own nuclear disaster and it's really absurd, because the effects of what is happening at Hanford will hit America way more than Fukushima.

Not argued it is worse or not. Hanford Nuclear site was created around WWII when the knowledge of nuclear safety was severely lacking. It was when people thought using a nuclear bomb is easy as bombing a city. It was when the idea of nuking entire China was fashionable or throwing a Cobalt Bomb.

The whole Fukushima saga was absurd, and the comparison with America is not helping. Not to mention that leadership during Fukushima got away scott-free, while in America they would be in jail and the company behind the planet would pay billions due to lawsuits.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

I wanna see that...!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I every much doubt TEPCO can even start before 2031.

Firstly the spent fuel from the No1-3 reactors will have to be removed first. They are removing the spent fuel from No3 reactor which should be complete by next year, 2020.

Probably the next one will be the No1 reactor. The most difficult will be No2 reactor which has radiation levels of 15 SIEVERT/hr.

TEPCO does not know where all the melted fuel is, some could even be outside of the reactor containment vessels. They have no knowledge how it can be removed because all the robots fry from the high radiation levels of 500 SIEVERTS/hr.

The nuclear disaster will more than 100 years.

This type of nuclear disaster very different from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. There are no previous answers to the very difficult problems.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

@Xeno Man: obviously you didn't read the article that I posted about Hanford Site. More than 50 years of lies and nobody is in jail, while the situation is very dangerous. Workers are often exposed to radiations, the river Columbia is contaminated but authorities are in denial, nuclear waste is leaking everywhere, in the river and in the ground. Only go to read the article if you want to know how bad it is.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

In addition to the nuclear disaster site 21 rectors are going to be decommissioning. The country needs to resolve the problem of long term storage of nuclear waste.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

A very good article. Thanks JT. It lays out many of the issues quite clearly without the usual focus on who to blame.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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