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Japan and nuclear power High alert via The Economist

The riskiest part yet of the Fukushima clean-up is soon to begin

AMONG the twisted metal and random debris that litter much of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, the fourth reactor looks in relatively good condition. A new structure covers the damage from a hydrogen explosion that blew its roof off days after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the plant in March 2011. But the building is still unstable, and its spent-fuel storage pool highly dangerous. This month Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) will start plucking out over 1,500 radioactive rods from the pool in order to store them more safely. Over the pool a crane waits to start the procedure, and a yellow radiation alarm stands at the ready. Experts call the operation the riskiest stage of the plant’s clean-up so far.

Removing spent fuel is a routine task at all nuclear facilities, says Akira Ono, the plant’s manager. Engineers will have to take out each fuel assembly one by one without mishap, and overcome the risks of fire, earthquake and the pool boiling dry. The fuel rods can ignite if they lose coolant, or explode if they collide.

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At the moment Japan is entirely without nuclear energy, but that is unlikely to last for long. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, is pushing for as many of the country’s 50 usable reactors to restart as soon as possible after passing safety checks by the NRA. The need to import energy has pushed up the price of electricity and added to a series of trade deficits since 2011. In September TEPCO won approval from the governor of Niigata prefecture to apply for a safety check in order to restart two reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, the world’s biggest. If it is allowed to restart, others would probably follow.

Most of the public are broadly against restarting nuclear plants even once they pass new checks. Nonetheless, says Hide

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