Fukushima nuclear power plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) is prepping for one of its most critical and dangerous processes to date in its incident-filled cleanup of what has been called the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Starting in November, the embattled operator will be removing 400 tons of spent nuclear fuel from Fukushima’s reactor no. 4, where even a little mistake may result in a totally new nuclear disaster for Japan. The operation is scheduled to start in the beginning of November and be completed by around the end of 2014.
Under normal circumstances, the operation would take around 100 days. TEPCO had initially planned for this process to take two years, but due to the urgency of the situation – a minor earthquake could trigger an uncontrolled fuel leak – they reduced the schedule to one year. In this process, TEPCO will be removing more than 1,300 used fuel rod assemblies, packing radiation 14,000 times the equivalent of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb, from their cooling pool. Normally, this would be a computer-controlled process, but due to the situation at Fukushima, this time it has to be done completely manually – compounding the danger and risk. “The operation to begin removing fuel from such a severely damaged pool has never been attempted before. The rods are unwieldy and very heavy, each one weighing two-thirds of a ton,” says fallout researcher Christina Consolo.
Should this attempt fail, a mishandled fuel rod could be exposed to air and catch fire, resulting in large quantities of radiation released into the atmosphere. In the worst-case scenario, the cooling pool could crash from its crane to the ground, dumping the rods together into a pile that could fission and cause an explosion many times worse than in March 2011. “The worst-case scenario could play out in death to billions of people. A true apocalypse,” Consolo said. The concern is palpable and real, as TEPCO’s track record these past few months have been less than stellar. Leaks have hounded the cooling process of the molten down reactors, resulting in radioactive waste water freely and daily flowing into the Pacific Ocean.