TOKYO -- The government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) are considering starting the removal of molten nuclear fuel from the No. 2 reactor of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, people familiar with the matter have told the Mainichi Shimbun.
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Three of the four reactors at the plant in the northern Japanese prefecture of Fukushima suffered core meltdowns after the reactors' cooling systems shut down due to tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011.
According to the sources, an on-site inspection of molten fuel debris inside the reactor's containment vessel using remote control equipment will be conducted this fiscal year. Data from the test, such as the hardness of the debris and whether it is movable, will be used to develop equipment to remove and store the highly radioactive materials.
Under the road map for decommissioning the power plant revised in September last year, the government and TEPCO are to decide on a reactor on which to start debris removal and determine how to carry out the procedure by March 2020, the end of next fiscal year. Actual removal is scheduled to begin in 2021.
In January of this year, the government and TEPCO managed to insert a pipe with a camera into the No. 2 reactor's containment vessel and captured the image of gravel- or clay-like deposits believed to be fuel debris on the floor.
According to the people familiar with the matter, the government and TEPCO have judged that it is necessary to further examine the conditions of the No. 2 reactor as a possible starting point for fuel debris removal, since inspections needed for such an operation have progressed further on the No. 2 unit more than on the other two reactors that suffered core meltdowns in 2011.
The government and TEPCO will carry out the new probe in the fall or later of this year by inserting a camera-equipped pipe attached with a device capable of directly touching the debris, which will gather data on the reactor's current conditions. The debris is not taken out of the containment vessel at any point of this survey. In the next fiscal year starting April 2019, they will consider examining wider areas inside the containment vessel and recovering a small sample of molten fuel for analysis ahead of full-fledged extraction in 2021.
As for the other reactors, the No. 3 unit has water inside the containment vessel, the removal of which is difficult, although images of what appeared to be fuel debris were captured inside the reactor in July 2017. The No. 1 reactor, meanwhile, will receive another probe to determine the existence of molten fuel inside because an inspection carried out in March last year failed to spot any debris.
TEPCO will shortly submit a plan for the examination of the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors' interior for fiscal 2019 and later to the Nuclear Regulation Authority.
(Japanese original by Toshiyuki Suzuki and Ei Okada, Science & Environment News Department)