Japan's Nuclear Cleanup Enters Critical New Phase
Fuel-rod transfer poses serious danger
By Matt Cantor,  Newser User
Posted Nov 7, 2013 10:00 AM CST
Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees and journalists wearing protective suits and masks look at the spent fuel pool inside the building housing the Unit 4 reactor.   (AP Photo/Kimimasa Mayama, Pool)
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(Newser) – Teams working at the Fukushima power station are facing a critical—and extremely dangerous—new task: pulling 13-foot nuclear fuel rods from the Unit 4 structure slammed by the tsunami. "It's going to be very difficult, but it has to happen," an official tells the BBC. To prevent leaks, the uranium-filled rods have to be kept constantly underwater, so they'll be taken, via crane, from Unit 4 in water-filled casks holding 22 rods each, officials say. Then they'll be placed in a new structure: a cooled "common pool" that's "reinforced against possible future earthquakes and tsunamis," a top industrial official says.

The common pool is supposed to last for a decade or two, the official adds. Among the radiation risks in the process, which could take up to 10 days: Authorities don't know for sure whether the fuel rods were damaged in the disaster; they'll be checked after the move begins. What's more, the casks could theoretically be dropped by the crane—but tests have indicated that such an incident wouldn't break their seals, and anyway, the crane can handle much heavier loads. After Unit 4 is dealt with, it's onto Units 1, 2, and 3, the BBC notes.