Published: 24 Nov 2013 at 00.00
Newspaper section: News
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The announcement that nuclear experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will visit Japan in the coming week to help with planning in a critical stage of the decontamination operation at the devastated Fukushima nuclear plant is encouraging. The IAEA has had some involvement in the decontamination in the past and helped to draw up an action plan after a team visited Fukushima in April, but it has long been obvious that Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the privately owned company that runs Fukushima, should be seeking out more international assistance to bring this complicated and potentially very dangerous process to a successful completion.
The IAEA said in a statement on Tuesday that an "expert team will visit Japan this month at the request of the Japanese government to review the efforts and plans to decommission Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station".
"The IAEA mission will assess that plan and, in particular, efforts to manage contaminated water at the accident site and to remove fuel assemblies from the spent fuel pool in Reactor Unit 4," the UN nuclear watchdog said. The 19-strong mission will take place from tomorrow until Dec 4.
It’s estimated that the decontamination process will take 40 years or more. Last week workers at Fukushima successfully removed the first nuclear fuel rod assemblies from a cooling pool suspended high above ground at Reactor No4 in what has been described as one of the most dangerous operations ever attempted in nuclear history.
So far, so good, but there are still more than 1,200 fuel rod assemblies to be moved from Reactor No4, the most unstable of the four damaged reactors.
Experts say that if the fuel rods come too close to each other during the operation there is a chance of a nuclear chain reaction that could spread to all the fissile material.
The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013 says that "could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date".
Note: The WNISR 2013 has not suggested that the fuel unloading operation could cause such a disaster. Here’s the context:
"Radioactivity of the Unit-4 spent fuel pool is more or less equivalent to three full reactor-loads; i.e. the quantity of the irradiated fuel rods kept in that single pool roughly equals those in Unit-1, -2 and -3 reactor cores combined. Thus, full release from the Unit-4 spent fuel pool, without any containment or control, could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date."