Nuclear Pick-Up Sticks

TEPCO begins precarious process of removing spent fuel rods at Fukushima Plant

| posted on November 19, 2013
Genki Kino in front of the infamous nuclear power facility, Fukushima, prior to the meltdown. Photo: Takahashi

Genki Kino in front of the infamous nuclear power facility, Fukushima, prior to the meltdown in 2011. Photo: Takahashi

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has undertaken the very delicate and potentially dangerous process of removing more than 1,000 spent fuel rods from the No. 4 nuclear reactor, the first major step in decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Under normal circumstances, removing spent fuel rods is considered to be a relatively routine task for nuclear power plant operators. But the situation at the Fukushima plant is anything but ordinary.

In the days following the tragic tsunami that swept through Japan’s coastline in March of 2011, chaos ensued at the plant. Two days after the tsunami, a hydrogen explosion occurred, causing a nuclear meltdown in three of the four reactors. Nearly three years later, still housed in a crippled plant, TEPCO is finally ready to begin the process of removing the dangerous fuel rods from one of the four reactors. Because the buildings housing the reactors are still damaged (TEPCO has taken steps to reinforce the structure) the undertaking will require the most delicate of touches. In a quote given to Reuters, Arnie Gunderson, an American nuclear energy expert experienced in the process of removing fuel rods, compared the task at hand with “pulling cigarettes from a crushed pack.” If the spent rods, which are suspended more than 100 feet high in a pool of water, were to be dropped or crushed, the results could be catastrophic.

READ: J-Bay Goes Nuclear

“All I can do is pray that nothing goes wrong,” Yasuro Kawai, a one-time plant engineer at Fukushima told the New York Times. The likelihood of an accident, however, is said to be slim as the company, with the help of nuclear experts from around the world, is taking a painstakingly detailed approach to the effort.

Nuclear safety experts agree that the fuel rods from reactor No. 4 have to be moved to a safer location. Their primary concern is that another earthquake could strike the area, causing the rods to be crushed if they aren’t relocated. On average, up to 2,000 earthquakes that can be felt by people occur in Japan every year. Recently, a 7.1 quake occurred near the Fukushima reactor, spawning a minor tsunami.

While TEPCO seems to be approaching the process of removing the spent fuel rods with the utmost of caution, the way they’ve handled a litany of issues at the plant in the past has led many environmental groups and Japanese citizens to lose faith in the company. Hiromi Matsubara of the Japanese chapter of the Surfrider Foundation believes that TEPCO has proven themselves inept. In July, we reported that contaminated groundwater from the plant had been leaking into the ocean from the No. 3 reactor for more than two years.

READ: Radioactive Seas

“I don’t have any trust in TEPCO. Our national mass media isn’t following the story as much as they should,” said Matsubara. “As a citizen, it’s important that we take stock of what’s happening and what the potential risks could be. Fukushima has now become a global problem, requiring a global solution.”

Surprisingly, the greater story here may not be the inherent dangers that TEPCO faces in removing the spent fuel rods from reactor No. 4, but the unknown problems that continue to percolate in reactors 1-3. Currently, those reactors are considered to be too radioactive to approach.

  • surferreader

    The Fukushima nuke plants were built by American companies. The same thing could happen here. Tragically, 1,000s of people will die of cancer from Fukushima, according to Karl Grossman, a professor at the State UNiversity of New York. Why not close all nukes and use solar and energy efficiency programs?

    • bikerferlife

      I wish we would do exactly that. But the infrastructure for solar wind and tidal to support energy needs doesn’t exist. It will someday, but until it does nukes are the safest option. I know everybody fears that but a) the danger from Fukishima to the planet is not what fearmongers would have you believe, and b) coal and fossil is killing our planet at an alarming rate and the sooner that is stopped, even with nukes, the better.

    • cleanSooke

      The problem with solar, wind and tidal power is storage. They are not on-demand power sources. We do not have the storage that makes the switch a reality. It’s being worked on, but not yet. Also, too many people think they are ugly as is evidenced on the north shore. I worked out of Port Allen on Kauai for many years. The crap the power plant spews is disgusting…same thing is happening on Oahu too. To me it’s a good start, and if we want TV’s, computers and lights we need to make that decision to start switching. We are getting there, just not fast enough I fear.

      • shipwreck

        you from kauai and live in sooke? i grew up in hanalei and spend time surfing south van island. pretty good zones yea

        • cleanSooke

          Yep, grew up in Waimanalo, moved to Kauai in 89, moved here in 08. Some really good zones, but this year has been sloooow, with the storm tracks way too south for most swells to get in here this year.

  • jrmarg516

    As one who has experience in loading spent fuel canisters, this is within the industry experience base. Canisters have been loaded around the world and safely stored. Certainly it is important for the nuclear enterprise to be open, safe, and accountable. However, it is also important that fearmongering not take the place of accurate information and assessment.

    • jswigga

      Well said, jrmarg516. We all know something needs to be done and we all know fear mongering and sensationalizing the situation won’t help.

    • Pavlo

      I don’t think anyone is suggesting the routine removal of spent fuel rods is a difficult job. However in the current circumstances at Fukushima R4 it sounds well beyond routine and could be catastrophic if something goes wrong.

    • Guest

      Don’t forget the part about all of this being done in a plant that experienced a hydrogen explosion that literally blew the roof off the building. From the chairmen of the Japanese Nuclear Regulatory Agency spokesperson:

      “It’s a totally different operation than removing normal fuel rods from a spent fuel pool. They need to be handled extremely carefully and closely monitored. You should never rush or force them out, or they may break. I’m much more worried about this than I am about contaminated water.”

  • gannysesh

    Psht, I’ll approach those reactors no problem. I’ll be like, “step. I said STEP.” The abandoned cows that are chilling around the plant will then move out of my way. Then I’ll dive into a cooling tank and grab a rod and then carry it around underwater, Matt George-style, just for strength-training. Then when I’m fully buff I’ll pick them all up at once, plop them in the back of my van, and then deliver them to the new holding tank.


    So what you’re trying to say is… the Pacific Ocean is f*%ked..? I need a cigarette 🙁

  • Yoda

    Nuclear energy is a clear example of why modern economic theory is a form of brain damage. If the actual long-term cost of the safe storage & disposal of spent fuel were factored into the cost of generating nuclear power (as it should be!), then nuclear power would not be economically viable. Human beings are so short-sighted…

  • cookies

    Yoda, summed it up perfectly well, and the same could be said for fossil fuels as energy sources, with out the subsidies, and funny math, the economic model is unsustainable, not to mention the product it produces. As far as ‘fear mongering’… well only a fool would not be afraid of nuclear energy. The stuff is clearly much to volatile, with cancer and death and misery for people and all living organisms as a result. The deal is is that the infrastructure does not exist for tidal, wind and solar because once the infrastructure is established it’s essentially free. Free energy is bad for energy companies and their share holders, which brings us back to Yoda’s point that this current economic model is form of human brain damage.

    • cleanSooke

      Coal has caused more cancer deaths in the USA than nuclear power has in the world (by far). Not to say I’m for nuclear power plants, just reason. There is a big difference between fear and respect. Nuclear power needs to be respected, our governments need to be feared.

    • Mik

      Spot on comment!

  • aumakua

    Everyone please watch “BlACKFISH”, all about captivity that’s a tie to Japans Slaughtering Whales and Dolphins. RIGHT NOW its happening in streams with Sea Shepherd. The government doesn’t care, they took 28 million dollars plus, from the Fukushima disaster relief funds for whaling. The whales and dolphins are contaminated with high MERCURY. They capture the pretty Dolphins and Whales for captivity, and sell them all
    over the world to Dolphinariums. The rest are inhumanely killed, watch “Dawn to Death” with Martyn Stewart…Now they are trying to clean up Japan because they will host the Olympics $$. The truth about all the radiation is frightening!, Our Pacific Ocean is screwed, don’t eat Big Ahi’s. The Dolphins and Whales need everyone’s help. The Japanese say that Killing Mothers and Babies are Bad luck, “Seminagare”, yet they continue to do so ? Killing the Mothers and dragging the babies out to sea knowing they will not survive. Its sad that all the children will suffer the most, because of the radiation. Japan just needs to Stop Killing, as the Global Universe will have the last say…the Faroe’s also please stop too.

    • cleanSooke

      The wild capture of Orca is not an issue in the western world, but captive breeding programs are. In other parts like Russia, they still don’t get it: Mind you the Orca in that region are not endangered like the southern resident killer whales are. We’re down to 80 individuals in 3 pods, with an aging population no surviving offspring in 3 yrs -J118 was the last- we’re in immediate danger of losing this group if we don’t stop or severely reduce the take of Chinook salmon and protect the Chinook (King salmon) hatcheries (rivers, streams ei; stop damming projects). While the SRKW are indeed the most polluted marine mammal on earth, that’s not why they’re dying off, it’s lack of food.

      So, after watching blackfish, what do you plan on doing to help? Writing letters might help stop captive breeding programs, but do you want to help the Orca that are in trouble? Stop eating chinook/king salmon that’s caught in the PNW, don’t eat farmed salmon…they don’t label them “farmed”, they label them as “Atlantic salmon”. If it doesn’t say “wild salmon” it’s bad. You want to help blackfish in general? Try the highly endangered Hawaiian false killer whale, roughly 240 individuals spread over 1500 miles (Hawaii to Kure atoll).

      Not sure what any of this has to do with Fukushima, but you brought it up. BTW, Japan is a big place, they don’t have to clean up the whole country, and I’m pretty sure Tokyo is far enough away to host some athletes for a couple weeks.

  • Mik

    I am no nuclear clean-up authority, but I have been reading up on this and following it great detail, as a surfer who is terrified by the potential of the Pacific Ocean becoming contaminated with radioactive wastewater.

    The general opinion is that it is a very precarious situation. Because the fuel rods that are being removed in Plant 4 may be bent, or damaged, so the standard procedures do not necessarily apply. And there 1200 of them. Try doing ANYTHING 1200 times, much less handling highly radioactive material underwater, and you will begin to understand how dangerous this process potentially is. So anyone who is trivializing this is off-base. They are theorizing, when the reality is brutally out of control. Here’s why:

    You have to realize that even though they are dealing with Plant 4, Plants 1, 2, and 3 have ALREADY melted down. And the nuclear rods in them have burned through their protective casings, and TEPCO doesn’t know exactly how deep into the earth they have burned. Even if they did, they have admitted that they currently do not exactly know how to resolve the problem.

    This means that this highly radioacative material is settling towards the aquafer under them, which supplies water to millions of Japanese people, and which is also close to the Pacific Ocean.

    Add in the fact that TEPCO has been adding 400 tones of contaminated cooling water into temporary steel storage tanks on the site, every day, for 2 years — and they really don’t have a safe place to store it all permanently. Theoretically, it can be cleaned to a level that is safe to pour into the ocean, but the reality is that technology is not yet proven, otherwise why are the storing it?????

    So the reality is Japan is potentially in a crisis situation that could impact the entire Pacific Ocean, and the lawsuits would decimate their economy, not to mention the cost of life, and environmental destruction. And I am not attacking the Japanese people by harping on this. I am supporting the Japanese people’s own desire for the Government to face reality and ask the world to help them.

    I asked SURFER to put pressure on Japan by dedicating an issue to this crisis… Or at least making it a dramatic cover story — because that would help wake the Japanese government up to the fact that we are watching, and we are not going to sit back and let the Pacific Ocean—which borders the land masses of Hawaii, California, Mexico, and Central and South America—become radiocative. And if you think I am fear-mongering you simply haven’t read enough on what is happening:

    Furthermore, the idea that nuclear power is an evil necessity is untrue today.

    One of my friends is a Silicon Valley tech professional. He drives a brand new all-electric Toyota RAV4. It runs for 170 miles on a charge. He charges it with his home Solar set-up, as well as his home, which generates more electricity than he can use. The cost of charging the car is less than $4. The batteries are guaranteed for 8 years, but built to last 15. The car’s electric motor is built to go 500,000 miles. So this car is good for about 25 years, which brings the cost to about $1500 a year. Therefore Solar power can provide enough power for private citizens’ homes and cars. We do not NEED utility companies in this new paradigm, except for large manufacturing companies, or City infrastructure. And there would be plenty of traditional energy available if private homes and cars were self sufficient via Solar, so nuclear is no longer needed, at all.

    Japan needs to transition to making electric cars, and home Solar units. THAT is the future. Nuclear power is too expensive, and too toxic. Any container that the nuclear waste goes in will eventually break down and render the area it is stored in too toxic for human life… So we are creating problems for people to deal with in the future, and that is evil.

    Japan should never have bought into nuclear energy. It is tragically ironic.

    They are the only country to have been attacked with nuclear bombs, and should have rejected the idea. Fortunately, the previous Head of State has revised his views, and is now saying he wants Japan to shut down all of their nuclear sites. You can see in his eyes the fear regarding what is happening in Fukushima, because he understands that they are one earthquake away from potential annihilation that will make Cherynoble seem like the good old days.

    • cleanSooke

      First is a good explanation of what happened…sorry there’s no emotional sensationalism in this, just fact:

      This is a refuting of most of the ‘out there’ fear mongering:

      This from Woods Hole:

      Is it bad, sure, but is David Suzuki right when he says we need to get ready to evacuate the west coast? No. Keep in mind there has been a nuclear reaction occurring in Gabon far longer than humans have been on this earth (2 billion years), with most likely many more deep within the earth:

      All this said, the removal of the spent rods is something to be worried about. The potential for radioactive release into the atmosphere is there, and that would be far more harmful to us than what has happened so far.

      A sample of one (your friend) is just that. There are only a few places in NA where we could continue to heat our homes electrically (wood burning is not good for the environment at all) use comps, fridge, stove and such. Again storage is the issue, if it were as simple as all that more people would do it. I know a few people on Kauai living off the grid, it’s a part time job to keep the systems running, and all of them have backup generators…and use them from time to time.

      • Mik


        Plants 1, 2, and 3 have ALREADY melted down. And the nuclear rods in them have burned through their protective casings, and TEPCO doesn’t know exactly how deep into the earth they have burned.


        TEPCO executives have admitted that they currently do not exactly know how to resolve the problem.


        This means that this highly radioacative material is settling towards the aquafer under them, which supplies water to millions of Japanese people, and which is also close to the Pacific Ocean.

        David Suzuki is not exaggerating the danger, he is warning us of the implications of this crisis, and I am simply condensing these warnings into soundbites that are more direct than what u typically get in news stories, because news papers are typically protective of the nuclear power industry, in the same way they protect the oil industry and people like GW Bush, and invasions of foreign countries, etc.

        If the radioactive cores pollute the aquifer under Fukushima, game over.

        • cleanSooke

          Game over. That’s a pretty final statement. Game over for who? For the people of Fukushima? Or do you think it’s a sign to flee the west coast as proposed by Suzuki?

          Did you read and watch the posts I posted, or did you just figure “you’ve heard it all already”? You’re correct in saying that some if not all the rods have melted and burned through the metal casing. FACT: NO ONE knows (I hate to yell, but you seem to like it) how far the melted core will go, if it’s gone past the concrete casing or not. It may not, it may stop, it may continue. The question is how big is the aquifer? How much interconnection is there with the aquifer below the plant and the rest of Japan? How much contact to the Ocean does it have and how much will reach the ocean.

          “The psychological damage is worse than the physical damage” (about Chernobyl)

          Also, and more in depth you should read this paper:

          -“An increase in registration of thyroid cancers in children under 15
          years old was first found in 1987, one year after the accident, in the
          Bryansk region of Russia, and the greatest incidence, of 0.027% was
          found in 1994. Both of these studies were made too early to be in
          agreement with what we know about radiation induced cancers. The mean
          latency period for malignant thyroid tumors in adults and children
          exposed to external and internal medical irradiation with 40 Gy is about 28 years (Kikuchi et al; 2004; UNSCEAR 2000b). Kikuchi et al (2004)
          tried to explain the discrepancy between the clinical experience and
          the Chernobyl findings by some exotic ideas, such as, for example,
          “radiation leakage or other environmental conditions, exposure to
          carcinogens that occurred near Chernobyl prior to the nuclear accident,
          or that the population is genetically predisposed to thyroid cancer”.
          However, mass screening and diagnostic suspicion, already flourishing in
          1987, is a more serendipitous explanation.”-

          Basically, it’s not “game over”. If it hits the aquifer that means the people around Fukushima will have to get water from somewhere else (like California). The amount of radiation in the ocean “right now” is negligible.

          The biggest issue I see from all this is the potential for a gaseous release if the rods explode if there’s an incident while moving the spent rods from the tanks to the holding facility. One would hope that the 36 people working in 2 hr shifts per day love their life enough to take due care and diligence while moving these rods. Even still, the dispersal of this gas will most likely only effect the surrounding areas and become less than background radiation the further out you get.

          So, is this a effed up situation? Sure. Is it “game over”? No.

          Want something to worry about? Try coal, it has everything nuclear does and more…radiation, mercury, ash, particulates, earth warming gases, and there’s so much of it to actually make an impact:
          Deaths…coal v nuclear

          Here’s a less ‘academic” view with some graphics to help conceptualize how bad and widespread coal is.