Taking Nukes Off Line Will Take 30 Years

Thursday, March 31, 2011 @ 09:03 AM gHale

Damaged reactors at the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant may take three decades to decommission and cost operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) more than 1 trillion yen ($12 billion), engineers and analysts said.

Four of the plant’s six reactors became useless after officials used sea water to cool them after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out generators running its cooling systems. The reactors need to be decommissioned, Tepco Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said today in a report on Bloomberg News.

All the reactors, including Units 5 and 6, will be shut down, and the government hasn’t ruled out sealing the plant in concrete, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

The damaged reactors need to be demolished after they have cooled and radioactive materials are removed and stored, said Tomoko Murakami, a nuclear researcher at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. The process will take longer than the 12 years needed to decommission the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania following a partial meltdown, said Hironobu Unesaki, a nuclear engineering professor at Kyoto University.

“Lack of public support may force the decommissioning of all six reactors,” said Daniel Aldrich, a political science professor at Purdue University. Tepco “will try to salvage two if it can find public support, which may be unlikely.”

The damaged reactors will take more than a few weeks to stabilize, Katsumata, who took charge of Tepco’s response after President Masataka Shimizu was hospitalized, told reporters.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan yesterday blamed inadequate tsunami defenses at the plant for the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, saying that the safety standards set by Tepco were too low. Efforts to cool fuel rods at the four reactors have been hindered by detection of radiation levels that can prove fatal for a person exposed for several hours.

The utility is focusing on bringing the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant under control and can’t comment on the power station’s future, said Naoyuki Matsumoto, a spokesman for Tepco.

Japan is studying various ways to cool water at the plant’s reactors and fuel-rod ponds, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano said. It will take “considerable time” until the temperature drops and is stable, he said.

Covering the plant with fabric and removing contaminated water to a tanker are among options under consideration for reducing the threat from radiation, Edano said.

“Specialists are considering various possibilities and means to contain the nuclear power plant situation and minimize radiation effects in surrounding areas and harm to health,” he said. “We haven’t reached a conclusion about what means are possible or effective.”

Japanese authorities rated the Fukushima accident a 5 on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 7-step scale for nuclear incidents, under which each extra point represents a 10- fold increase in seriousness.

At Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979, one reactor partially melted in the worst U.S. accident, earning a 5 rating. Its $973 million repair and cleanup took almost 12 years to complete, according to a report on the World Nuclear Association’s website. More than 1,000 workers were involved in designing and conducting the cleanup operation, the report said.

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