Gov't backs away from plan for fuel debris retrieval at Fukushima nuke plan

2 September 2017

The government unveiled on Sept. 1 a draft revision of its medium- to long-term roadmap sketching out work processes for decommissioning Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi plant crippled by the 2011 nuclear accident. Referring to the removal of nuclear fuel debris from inside three reactors, Units 1-3, the new draft roadmap says that "retrieval should be sought to start...during 2021," stepping away somewhat from the current version's assertion that "retrieval should start...during 2021." The revised expression can be taken to suggest a possible delay in launching the extraction of debris. Some experts say the government should try to retain the original time schedule.

The proposed roadmap revision was shown at the day's meeting of a government team discussing ways of decommissioning the Fukushima plant and reducing wastewater polluted by radioactive materials. The meeting was held at the Prime Minister's Official Residence in Tokyo.

Regarding the timing of starting debris removal, the current roadmap, last revised in 2015, says that "...the method for the fuel debris retrieval from the first implementing unit should be decided by the first half of FY 2018, and then fuel debris retrieval should start in the first implementing unit during 2021." The government and TEPCO have probed the present status inside the containment vessel of each of Units 1-3 but failed to confirm details of debris in any of the reactors. Based on such realities, the draft revision says "retrieval should be sought to start in the first implementing unit during 2021." On the other hand, the draft maintains the overall framework of completing the decommissioning process within 30 to 40 years of the disaster.

"We think it possible to begin debris retrieval in 2021 but have inserted the term 'be sought to' as we have yet to complete scrutiny (of decommissioning work for deciding the roadmap). The expression is not predicated on a delay in the work," said Masato Kino, an official in charge of decommissioning and wastewater disposal at the Natural Resources and Energy Agency of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry. Speaking at a press conference the same day at the Fukushima prefectural government office in Fukushima city, Kino did not rule out the possibility of a delay in the start of debris removal as a result of the scrutiny.

Referring to the revised wording, Shigeaki Tsunoyama, a senior adviser to the prefectural government on nuclear issues, said, "It is understandable in some aspects, given the failure so far to grasp the status of conditions inside the reactors." Based on that perception, Tsunoyama emphasized the need for the government to "make effects to retain the conventional time schedule to reduce working risk" because "a major delay in starting debris retrieval would prolong the period of completing decommissioning."

The government is expected to closely examine a target period for completing each process of decommissioning work such as fuel extraction from pools of spent fuel and reduction in contaminated wastewater. It will then decide on a final revision of the roadmap soon, possibly as early as within this month.

(Translated by Kyodo News)