The operator of the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant has begun removing fuel from a cooling pool at one of three reactors that melted down in the 2011 disaster, a milestone in the decades-long process to decommission the plant. Tokyo Electric Power Co. said Monday that workers operating from a control room more than 500 yards away started removing the first of 566 used and unused fuel units stored in the pool at Unit 3, the AP reports. The fuel units in the pool located high up in reactor buildings are intact despite the disaster, but the pools are not enclosed, so removing the units to safer ground is crucial to avoid disaster in case of another major quake. TEPCO says the removal at Unit 3 will take two years and will be followed by work at the two other reactors, where about 1,000 fuel units remain in the storage pools.
Removing fuel units from the cooling pools comes ahead of the real challenge of removing melted fuel from inside the reactors, but details of how that might be done are still largely unknown. Removing the fuel in the cooling pools was delayed more than four years by mishaps, high radiation, and radioactive debris from an explosion that occurred at the time of the reactor meltdown, underscoring the difficulties that remain. Workers are remotely operating a crane to raise the fuel from a storage rack in the pool and place it into a protective cask. The whole process occurs underwater to prevent radiation leaks. When a cask is filled with seven fuel units, it will be moved by truck to a safer cooling unit elsewhere at the plant. About an hour after the work began Monday, the first fuel unit was safely stored inside the cask, TEPCO said. (Read more Fukushima Dai-ichi stories.)