Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the stricken Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan' s Fukushima Prefecture, on Tuesday began the critical task of dismantling the protective cover of the No. 1 reactor building, as part of the decades-long decommissioning of the plant's reactors.
Heavy machinery was used to remove one of six large panels that were installed following the earthquake and tsunami-triggered multiple meltdowns in 2011 at the plant in an effort to prevent radioactive materials from escaping into the environment.
TEPCO said the removal of the top and side panels, first installed in October 2011 following meltdowns in three of the plant's six reactors in April of the same year, which led to the worst commercial nuclear disaster in history, was the first step in the delicate task of removing just less than 400 spent nuclear fuel rods from inside the reactor.
The process, delayed since last July owing to the embattled utility struggling to contain leaks from temporary tanks storing contaminated water that led to radioactive materials mixing with groundwater and flowing into the Pacific Ocean, as well as concerns that removing the panel would also cause radioactive materials to be dispersed, is scheduled to be completed next year.
TEPCO said it now plans to start removing the spent nuclear fuel rods in 2020, in multi-billion dollar decommissioning process that is expected to take up to 30 years.
As protective chemicals were poured over the top of the roof, as the removal of the panel exposed a portion of the reactor building destroyed in the hydrogen explosion in the wake of the No. 1 reactor's meltdown, as a means of preventing radioactive dust and debris from being blown into the air, Takao Kiroko, a senior nuclear official from the Fukushima prefectural government, expressed caution.
"For the safety of Fukushima's residents, we would like the work to proceed with extra care," Kiroko was quoted by local media as saying.