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Nuclear Fuel Removal Tests Technique, Predictions, Nerves

By William Boardman --  Reader Supported News  (#111513)

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If the end of the world hasn't started yet, maybe it will start soon

Soon enough, if it hasn't started already, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) will begin removing the first of more than 1,500 fuel assemblies from the Fukushima Unit 4 fuel pool that sits about 100 feet above the ground. Each assembly contains 50-70 radioactive fuel rods. If this removal procedure goes seriously awry or the plant is hit by another major earthquake, some scientists say, "It's bye-bye Japan and everyone on the west coast of North America should evacuate." 

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Fukushima is a continuing disaster, and the Japanese haven't done that great a job keeping it from getting worse, but that's not the bad news. The bad news is that nobody else in the world has a much better idea about what to do, and even less of an idea of how to do it, and that's why the stampede of global rescue workers rushing to Japan isn't happening now and isn't likely to happen soon. 

Fulminating over Fukushima is fun for the whole family, and lord knows there's plenty to fulminate about, but when all the fulminating and fear-mongering and freak-out fomenting is done, the deteriorating disaster that is Fukushima continues to deteriorate unaffected.  The only likely effect of the fussing is further deterioration of the ability to think clearly about a situation in which the future is even more unknowable and uncontrollable than the future usually is. 

And now it's turning out that nuclear power will also contribute to climate change, indirectly, at least in the short run, because Japan has announced that it can't afford to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as promised, because taking care of Fukushima is too expensive and has led to a shutdown of all the rest of Japan's nuclear power plants. In the short term at least, Japan will rely more on electricity produced by coal, oil, and gas-burning power plants.

As a metaphor, Fukushima now has familiar apocalyptic and terrifying implications, but the reality of the place itself is more complicated. After all, if the sky really is falling, what are you going to do about it anyway? 

Fukushima will definitely get worse before it gets better, or worse still

When it was hit by an earthquake followed by a tsunami on March 11, 2011, Fukushima was a six-reactor nuclear power station. Units 1, 2, and 3 all melted down; at least 1 and 3 exploded, and an explosion tore off the roof of Unit 4, leaving its fuel pool precariously exposed. Units 5 and 6, although undamaged, have been shut down and pose no immediate threat. 

Continuously since 2011, Fukushima has been releasing radioactivity into the air, although that seems now to be minimized. The release of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean continues at varying intensities that appear to be still increasing, with little possible control in the near future. Groundwater flows into the plant and leaves contaminated. Water used as coolant is contaminated and flows out. And contaminated water that TEPCO collects in huge holding tanks leaks out. 

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There is broad agreement that the Unit 4 fuel pool is the highest priority for making Fukushima safer, not that it will be actually safe for a long, long time. Even if the fuel removal goes smoothly, it is expected to take more than a year to complete

In 1982, TEPCO damaged one of the fuel assemblies now in the Unit 4 fuel pool, and a reference to that damage -- the assembly is bent almost at a right angle -- was included in an August 2013 report. On November 12, Japan Times and Reuters reported this news, along with news from an April 2010 TEPCO report that: "it found two other spent fuel racks in the reactor's cooling pool had what appeared to be wire trapped in them. Rods in those assemblies have pin-hole cracks and are leaking low-level radioactive gases". "

TEPCO has the only plan in town 

TEPCO knows what it wants to do with the 1500 assemblies in unit 4. The procedure, as described by Reuters, is straight-forward in concept: "The assemblies must first be lifted from their storage frames in the pool and individually placed in a  steel  cask - kept all the while under water to prevent overheating. The cask, weighing around 90 tonnes when filled, will then be hoisted by crane from the pool, lowered to ground level and transported by trailer to a common storage pool about 100 metres away." 

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Vermonter living in Woodstock: elected to five terms (served 20 years) as side judge (sitting in Superior, Family, and Small Claims Courts); public radio producer, "The Panther Program" -- nationally distributed, three albums (at CD Baby), some (more...)
 

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