Fukushima: High-risk TEPCO work at Reactor 4 has started (updated)

UPDATE: The process of removing the fuel rods at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan has so far been successful. The first of the 22 rod assemblies planned for removal (which contain unspent fuel) have been removed. See this Bloomberg News article for more. Also in the same article, a description of what “criticality” would mean for Reactor 4, if the spent rods go critical.

It’s difficult to get consistent news out of Japan about the Fukushima nuclear plant, but it appears, after a rumored delay on Friday, work at Reactor 4 is now under way.

There are actually several short items in this post, starting with the headline. The other items relate to rods previously damaged — damage which was not previously announced by TEPCO, the risk presented by the debris in the Reactor 4 spent fuel pool, and the risk of a “criticality” or nuclear reaction (it’s not zero).

(All links via ENENEWS.com; if you have a better source for Fukushima news, please let me know in the comments.)

Work on removing the fuel rods has started

NHK World (my emphasis, paragraphing and notes throughout):

The operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant [TEPCO] has begun removing nuclear fuel from a storage pool at a damaged reactor building. Workers placed a special fuel transport container [“cask”] in the storage pool of the Number 4 reactor building.

The pool holds 1,533 units of nuclear fuel, of which 1,331 are highly radioactive spent fuel. The rest [202] are unused [“unspent” or “reactor-ready”].

At around 3PM on Monday, the workers started to hoist the unused [“unspent”] fuel units into the steel container [“cask”], which can store 22 units of fuel. The utility decided to remove these units first as they do not release high levels of radiation and heat. A TEPCO official said that the first fuel unit was moved into the container by 4PM, and that the workers had encountered no problems.

The first 22 units will be transferred into the container through Monday night.

There is some variance in the reports of the count of rods, so I added some numbers above. Considering the source (NHK), I will take these counts as authoritative until shown otherwise.

To see what is meant by “steel container” or “cask,” see the first video in this reference post. It shows the idealized process in a nice TEPCO-produced animation. The steel container, or cask, holding 22 units is taken to the common spent fuel pool, about 50 meters away, to be added to the more than 6,000 fuel rods already there.

Note: Fifty meters is not far — half a football field. The site has been criticized for being too compact, with reactors and the common spent fuel pool too close together. Getting the fuel rods out of Reactor 4 is a very high priority, given the condition of the building. But taking care of the common fuel pool is also important.

The article also notes that:

▪ Debris in the pool could complicate the procedure, but doesn’t say how (see below for more).
▪ The removal from Reactor 4 could take through the end of next year.
▪ The entire decommissioning process will take up to 40 years.

NHK is Japan’s public broadcasting network. There’s a video at the news site, which I can’t embed, but you can watch it there. It’s worth viewing, especially at 2:40 and following. If you do though, listen carefully. All of the calming is sourced to “officials” — fair enough — but then presented uncontested.

And in other Fuku news …

Eighty fuel rods in four reactors were damaged before the 2011 earthquake

There are up to 80 damaged fuel rods in Reactors 1 through 4, three of them in Reactor 4, where current work has started. RT.com:

Three of the spent fuel assemblies that will be pulled from the Fukushima nuclear plant during a year-long operation were damaged before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami crippled the Japanese facility.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), which operates the plant, said the damaged assemblies – 4.5 meter high racks with 50 to 70 rods of highly irradiated used fuel – won’t be lifted from the plant’s Reactor No. 4 when a large steel chamber, or cask, is employed to move over 1,500 assemblies to safe storage, Reuters reports.

In an 11-page information sheet released in August, TEPCO said one of the assemblies was even damaged as long ago as 1982, when it was bent out of shape during a transfer. … The damaged racks were first reported by a Fukushima area newspaper on Wednesday, as TEPCO is preparing to decommission the plant and remove the spent fuel assemblies from Reactor No. 4.

I believe this is references that local Fukushima newspaper report. Note the additional information about damaged rods in the other three reactors. EX-SKF:

TEPCO Admits Total 80 Spent Fuel Assemblies Had Damages Before the Nuclear Accident, 70 of Them in Reactor 1 Spent Fuel Pool

Move over, three fuel assemblies with damaged/deformed fuel rods inside in the Reactor 4 Spent Fuel Pool! You’re nothing.

According to Kahoku Shinpo, a Fukushima local paper, TEPCO admitted on November 15, 2013 that there are 70 fuel assemblies with damaged fuel rods in the Reactor 1 Spent Fuel Pool, located on the operating floor (top floor) of the reactor building whose air radiation levels are measured in millisievert/hour and sievert/hour (first floor). There are also three such fuel assemblies in the Reactor 2 SFP, and four of them in the Reactor 3 SFP.

Total 80 spent fuel assemblies in the SFPs in Reactors 1 – 4 are damaged. The damages had been there long before the March 11, 2011 accident, and TEPCO claims it properly notified the national government as they discovered the damages. But the company has come clean in public only now.

About that “debris” in Reactor 4 …

Has debris damaged the rods in Reactor 4?

There’s clearly debris in the Reactor 4 spent fuel pool. How much, and what kind is the question. First, watch that video in the NHK news report at 2:40. The engineer is concerned that “there could be fragments of debris stuck between the [rod] assemblies and their holding racks.” Seems likely, given that debris comes in many sizes.

The article quoted just above says this:

In 2010, TEPCO said that another two spent fuel racks in the reactor’s cooling pool possibly contained wire trapped in them. Rods in the assemblies have small cracks and are leaking low-level radioactive gases, TEPCO spokesman Yoshikazu Nagai told Reuters on Thursday.

The AP is concerned that not only the rods (here called “assemblies”) but the handles at the top used to lift them could have been damaged during the disaster:

Q: What are the potential risks?

A: Fuel assemblies or the rods inside them may be damaged or break open if dropped or shaken violently. They may not come out of the rack smoothly. The fuel assemblies and their handles may have been damaged when big pieces of debris fell on them during explosions early in the crisis. A crane may drop a cask on the ground. Some fuel rods [meaning the zirconium alloy cladding] may be corroded because seawater was used to keep them cool during the emergency.

As a safety measure, the crane is equipped with a system that will stop pulling on the assemblies if it encounters a certain level of resistance to prevent any rods from getting damaged or broken. An underwater camera will monitor the work, and an underwater vacuum cleaner will collect small debris. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator, removed two unused fuel assemblies last year, and an examination suggests the assemblies have generally remained intact.

The rest of the AP article has good information. Do read if you’re following this story.

What’s the risk of a nuclear reaction?

About that, no one knows, but it’s not zero. The WSJ:

Each 550-lb [fuel rod] assembly unit holds 60 to 74 of the metal-clad [thin] rods filled with fuel pellets that power nuclear reactors. The units are kept in a pool of cool water to prevent exposure to air, which can cause the radioactive material to heat up and could trigger a sustained nuclear reaction.

A “sustained nuclear reaction” is also called a “criticality,” though not necessarily of the atomic bomb type. There are many kinds of criticality. What happens inside a nuclear reactor is a controlled criticality, the control being the control rods that are moved into and out of the reaction to absorb more or less atomic particles released.

[Update: The shape of that criticality would be similar to the meltdowns at Reactors 1, 2 and 3, according to Bloomberg News.]

The problem with this situation, according to Arnie Gundersen, is that there are no control rods in any of the spent fuel pools anywhere on the site, including in Reactor 4:

Arnie Gunderson, a veteran US nuclear engineer and director of Fairewinds Energy Education, told Reuters that “they are going to have difficulty in removing a significant number of the rods,” especially given their close proximity to each other, which risks breakage and the release of radiation.

Gundersen told Reuters of an incredibly dangerous “criticality” that would result if a chain reaction takes place at any point, if the rods break or even so much as collide with each other in the wrong way. The resulting radiation is too great for the cooling pool to absorb – it simply has not been designed to do so.

The problem with a fuel pool criticality is that you can’t stop it. There are no control rods to control it,”Gundsersen said. “The spent fuel pool cooling system is designed only to remove decay heat, not heat from an ongoing nuclear reaction.”

Agence France-Presse has the same concern, as do others.

The WSJ piece above linked editorially calls the article with the Gundersen quote “hyperventilation.” Feel free to decide for yourself.

Nuclear plant via Shutterstock.

Nuclear plant via Shutterstock.

But as you do, ask first — How much billionaire money is at stake in the nuclear industry, and would the Journal be sensitive and protective of that? I do mean for you to decide for yourself; this isn’t an indictment of the Journal. But the question has to be asked. Part of the damage of Fukushima is to the billion-dollar nuclear industry in the U.S.

You may want to go back to this reference post and watch that TEPCO animation again, just to get these pictures in your head. The thin rods are called “rods,” and the square packages are sometimes also called “rods” and sometimes “assemblies.” The thin rods are clad in zirconium alloy, and it appears the assemblies are as well. I haven’t discussed zirconium in this space, but Gundersen has, in the second video here. It’s highly ignitable; it’s the stuff that flares bright in flash cubes. (See the zirconium comment above.)

And that’s what we know as of this writing. Please stay tuned.


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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34 Responses to “Fukushima: High-risk TEPCO work at Reactor 4 has started (updated)”

  1. talks2angels says:

    Doesn’t matter how you look at this.. we’re all screwed. Thanks Japan..couldn’t admit they screwed up so they decided to just. “Let it happen..?” Pride..Vanity and Greed have been slowly destroying us anyways. Glory be to God

  2. Earthman says:

    Blah Blah blah,Whats makes this story so truthful?Japan’s been lying to the world since day one.

  3. cold340t says:

    Hey, got a worse report last night. According to a speaker at the last Oakland city council mtg., AT LEAST ONE FUEL ROD HAS GONE MISSING….POSSIBLY OUT TO SEA! They don’t know where it’s gone……. my goodness what is going on? The speaker is part of a group of concerned citizens. I haven’t seen the Council video yet, to confirm her statement but, DAMN!

  4. Just_AC says:

    Hey, thanks for the info, cinnamon – will have to look that up – But that sounds like it is just for externals – how about what you have ingested, and, more important, the food chain?

  5. Just_AC says:

    I can’t take too much credit! I have a personalized special section in Gnews to bring me current updates


  6. PeteWa says:


  7. steve003 says:

    If I gave you a reading list from leading authorities in nuclear science and health physics, from UNSCEAR and the W.H.O., would it make any difference? I doubt it. If you guys *really* want a conversation, I got a lot of material here.

    But, lets face it, getting people to change minds on topics like this is like trying to convince the Pope that the Trinity is a crock or that the Bible is nothing but myth and metaphor, or that the Church should accept sexual diversity and support gay marriage. Once beliefs are internalized and linked to a sense of identity, GOOD LUCK.


    Why don’t we just wait and see how the terror-fuel-rods make out. If this goes down without a “goodbye Japan” or similarly calamitous event as foretold by hyperventilating doomsayers, then perhaps what I’ve said might encourage some with open minds to revisit some old assumptions about low-level radiation, the role of nuclear vs. fossil fuels battle to the future of the atmosphere, and the (in)ability of wind and solar to truly affect the situation beyond the margins given the intractable issues of low power density, small capacity factors and unreliability. This is a serious issue affecting the our collective future. Lets keep and open mind and get this right.

    A key go-to guy is Prof. Barry Brook at U of Adelaide. Google him… his site is FULL of well researched, well argued analytics that back up the crap I’m talking about…

  8. PeteWa says:

    I was quite swayed by your appeal to authority via anecdote.

  9. cold340t says:

    Paid shill? Yah, raise exposure limits etc. Everything’s ok the ocean will dilute the problem, NOT!

  10. cold340t says:

    : )

  11. cinnamon says:

    If you are concerned about being over-exposed to radiation already do your research about how to remove the effects of radiation from your body. You need to get rid of the free radicals – ie positively charged particles, ie ionizing radiation. Bathe in epsom salt, rock sea salt & baking soda, 1 pound of each in the hottest water you can stand – stay at least 20-25 minutes. do at night 2-3 times a week, do not rinse off the bath water by showering. Drink sea salt water at the same time. Also look up drinking Bentonite clay and also bathing in clay – Clay is used inside suits and was used to neutralize Chernobyl – do your research – take Chlorella, and other remedies for heavy metal detoxification. If you are worried, do more research –

  12. Anonymous says:

    And the people with actual money & influence are embarrassing idiots. It’s the American way. Look at all the trust fund babies, business heirs and celebuspawn. George W. Bush is a classic example – had no merit or individuality of his own, but was merely a rich empty-head doing others’ dirty work.
    Think about how many rich people can use their powers for good, but just end up squandering it or being buffoons on TV.

  13. Anonymous says:

    This definitely falls under the “free will” clause – greedy corporations decided to ruin their own planet. I just talked to God and he told us we’re on our own.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I’m no expert, but aren’t the unspent rods the easiest part? What I’m really worried about are the “crumbled” rods.

  15. BadClown says:

    A Message from the King of Japan…


  16. steve003 says:

    I have read several detailed descriptions by “people in the industry”, which means they know what the f!k they are talking about. When this exercise is completed without incident, I hope you will apologize to your readers for trading in nonsense, fearmongering for reasons I can’t fathom (tribal badge of honour, attempting to use hype to attract readers?). If Japan falls into the Pacific Ocean because some spent fuel rods touch and blow-up like an atom bomb, I will eat as much crow as you can serve up.

    The disaster was the tsunami. The nuclear “disaster” killed no one – it was an economic disaster for TEPCO, but I think they are largely the authors of that chapter. Radiation exposure is so low as to cause no detectable health impact. No, I’m not crazy, I simply follow SCIENCE by, you know, people who have PhDs and have studied the subject for decades.

    The disaster has continued because fear, helped in no small measure by the crap that is peddled here, has lead to shutting all nuclear energy plants in Japan, which has turbo-charged their CO2 emissions and particulate (PM5) emissions. Unlike low-level radiation, smog and particulates DO kill people, and global climate change is on track to destroying the biosphere if we keep burning fossil fuels at ever increasing rates, to which Japan has now contributed a great deal. You do realize that buring a million tons of coal releases a few thousand pounds of Uranium and Thorium into the environment, don’t you? You are aware that some fracking fluids would be considered rad-waste if the same rules were applied to them as nuclear plants – all this due to naturally radioactive materials?

    Buring $billions in extra coal and gas is going to do more REAL harm to people than any radiation leaked by Fukushima. You can quote me on that- not from the radiation but from the NOx, SOx smog / acid rain, the mercury and other heavy-metal toxics (e.g. Uranium), the fine particulates and the millions of tons of CO2.

    So… congratulations? Well done?

    Ignorance kills. Put down the rantings of the likes of Wasserman and Caldicott, and pick up some texts on nuclear physics, radiation 101 and chat with some nuclear engineers instead. They are not all “shills” or in the pockets of “Wall St.”

    Our only hope of survival as a species is to use science and make rational decisions based on solid information without histrionics and hyperbole. This hyperventilating nonsense does this blog no favors at all…

  17. Indigo says:

    Good grief! Now it’s starting to sound like the plot of a manga series running wild.

  18. cold340t says:

    Latest reports I have read: Yakuza is charge of suppling workers. Please, I read this on e-news, would like to know if it true. But, we are all screwed anyway. So I guess it doesn’t really matter who’s in charge. As long as they are capable of putting some type of control of the mess. I hope they can!

  19. cold340t says:

    Damn! Speechless…………! Damn, and I would like to have kids at some point in my life! Damn! Guess I waited too long :{

  20. Bill_Perdue says:

    I was just a kid when they were showing us Civil Defense movies but I think that particulate matter in the atmosphere doesn’t necessarily need rain to fall. It just has to be inhaled, or in the case of the babies, ingested as food. It’s also a danger to wildlife and pets in the West who lick moisture off plants.

    I have a lot of mostly mormon friends from my railroading days who live in towns like Cedar City and St George who’ve lost family members to cancer. The feds give everyone in the family $50 grand per death. A lot of my friends have collected.

    Wiki – “On May 19, 1953, the United States government detonated the 32-kiloton (130 TJ) atomic bomb (nicknamed “Harry”) at the Nevada Test Site. The bomb later gained the name “Dirty Harry” because of the tremendous amount of off-site fallout generated by the bomb.[12] Winds carried fallout 135 miles (217 km) to St. George, where residents reported “an oddly metallic sort of taste in the air.”

    “The Howard Hughes motion picture, The Conqueror, was being filmed in the area of St. George at the time of the detonation. The fallout is often blamed for the unusually high percentage of cancer deaths among the cast and crew.”

    “St. George received the brunt of the fallout of above-ground nuclear testing in the Yucca Flats/Nevada Test Site northwest of Las Vegas. Winds routinely carried the fallout of these tests directly through St. George and southern Utah. Marked increases in cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, bone cancer, brain tumors, and gastrointestinal tract cancers were reported from the mid-1950s through 1980.”

    “A 1962 United States Atomic Energy Commission report found that “children living in St. George, Utah may have received doses to the thyroid of radioiodine as high as 120 to 440 rads””

  21. cold340t says:

    Damn!!!! No double Damn! I was out in the rain everyday during the releases :(

  22. Leo Pelliccia says:

    Cask? Short for casket?

  23. Indigo says:

    It’s okay if the crazies think it’s part of the Rapture, after all, those folks imagine humans are puppets God made to move around for fun.

  24. Indigo says:

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over what you just said but it’s a fact that it’s a profit-drive corporation doing the deed. I don’t share the idea that that’s automatically a good thing but true enough, Abe’s stupid old right wing, nationalist government in Tokyo offers nothing better.

  25. lynchie says:

    They know that most americans are stupid. they are more concerned with the latest on duck dynasty or which of the kardashian whores is pregnant or how bad the ACA is being launched. Unfortunately even if they did know or understand that is fuck all they could do about it.

  26. karmanot says:

    Well done Gaius—-excellent update!

  27. Bill_Perdue says:

    Another valuable update. Thanks, GP.

    Even if nothing else harmful happens the damage has already been done. “A new study finds that radioactive Iodine from Fukushima has caused a significant increase in hypothyroidism among babies in California, 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.” http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2164974/fukushima_fallout_damaged_thyroid_glands_of_california_babies.html

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  29. cold340t says:

    On another board, a poster says this all part of the Rapture. Well, that is some God to let this happen. I had to remind him, this is a man made catastrophe. God should be helping fix this, not letting it run it’s course. No more sushi or seafood in the near future. It doesn’t help that OUR Gov. is raising acceptable radiation limits for consumption/exposure. So, when levels go up it’s ok! This is the most serious issue facing OUR PLANET right now!!! For EVERYONE on this Planet. Yet, how much coverage does it get outside of Alternative Media? All I hear is crickets!

  30. John Sage says:

    It’s horrifying to watch the video and hear the narrator describing debris as being a serious concern, all-the-while the video shows an undamaged, intact reactor building or idealized, computer-generated graphics.

    Debris will be the least of their problems.

    Do these people actually thing they’re fooling anyone? Or is this just further evidence of the Pollyanna, head-in-the-sand attitude that’s been in force all along?

  31. GaiusPublius says:

    Totally helpful, Just_AC. I lose track of which links come from where, but Just_AC is a regular and helpful correspondent, for which I’m grateful.

    Edit: Just rechecked. The RT link was AC’s, and the “rumored delay” link as well. Again, thanks.


  32. nicho says:

    Oh for heaven’s sake. It’s in the competent hands of a private, profit-driven corporation. That’s much better than being in the hands of some stupid old government.

  33. Just_AC says:

    Thank you, again, Gaius, for bringing this info to the public I hope the info and links I provided helped you in your efforts


  34. Indigo says:

    The billionaire evaluation is likely based on the assumption that even if there’s an explosion or two, nobody “we” know will come to physical harm.

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