UN Unsure if Fukushima Cleanup will be Completed by 2051

Even a decade after the disaster, too little is known about melted fuel inside damaged reactors at the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant to determine whether decommissioning can be completed by 2051 as planned, according to a UN nuclear agency official. 

“Honestly speaking, I don’t know, and I don’t know if anybody knows,” Christophe Xerri, the head of an International Atomic Energy Agency team examining the plant’s cleanup progress, said. 

He urged Japan to accelerate reactor studies in order to have a better grasp of the decommissioning process in the long run. 

In March 2011, a huge earthquake and tsunami destroyed cooling systems at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan, causing three reactors to meltdown in the greatest nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Officials from the Japanese government and utilities say they hope to finish decommissioning in 30 years, but other experts say that’s extremely optimistic, even if a complete decommissioning is achievable. 

The largest issue, according to Xerri, Director of the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology, is removing and managing highly radioactive fuel debris from the three damaged reactors. 

According to him, the cleanup strategy is contingent on how the melted gasoline will be managed for long-term storage and management. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the IAEA team’s fifth evaluation following the accident was mostly conducted online. This week, only Xerri and another member of the team went to the factory before drafting and submitting a report to Japan’s government on Friday. 

The committee acknowledged progress in several areas since its last evaluation in 2018, including the removal of spent fuel from a storage pool at one of the damaged reactors and the decision to begin discharging enormous amounts of treated but still radioactive water stored at the plant into the ocean in 2023. 

Although there is a better understanding of the melted fuel inside the reactors now, more research is needed, according to the paper. The committee urged Japan to set aside sufficient funds to plan for measures over the next decade until the decommissioning is completed. 

According to Xerri, the research and development of new technologies required for the cleanup would take one to two decades, and Japan should apply additional resources as soon as feasible. 

According to the research, Japan should establish comprehensive plans not only for the cleanup of the melted reactors but also for the entire decommissioning process, as well as a more detailed end-state picture. 

Officials from the government and the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, have yet to present a clear picture of how the site will look once the cleanup is completed. 

Japan said in April that it will begin dumping vast amounts of purified but still radioactive water into the sea that had accumulated at the plant since the disaster. TEPCO said on Wednesday that the water would be sent offshore via an underwater tunnel after being further treated to lower radioactive elements to acceptable levels. 

The IAEA has agreed to assist with decommissioning and to participate in the monitoring and implementation of the water disposal plan. In September, the first IAEA mission on water disposal is slated to visit Japan. 

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