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Rare tour of Fukushima reveals colossal decontamination efforts

TOKYO — Journalists have been given a rare glimpse inside Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was crippled in the 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that hit the country two years ago. 

The tour of the plant ahead of the March 11 anniversary  of the disaster — which killed nearly 19,000 people and forced about 160,000 from their homes — sheds light on the colossal effort to decommission the nuclear reactors. The process is expected to take up to 40 years.

Inside the facility, rows of large tanks store contaminated water used to cool the reactors. Temperatures in the plant have been kept stable — between 59 to 95 Fahrenheit — by continuously injecting cooling water. 

According to a briefing by plant operator TEPCO, each container holds up to 1,100 tons of water and fills up in two-and-a-half days.  There are 930 of these tanks, and already 75 percent have been filled, according to officials.  Although TEPCO plans to increase capacity by an additional 771,600 tons, they are running out of space.

The process is also yielding roughly 440 tons of water every day, raising the issue of what to do with the contaminated liquid. Officials hope that this water purification system will remove nuclear particles when completed.

TEPCO expects the water’s contamination levels to be reduced to low enough levels  to release it into the ocean. It is not clear how they will be able to overcome the public discontent over this plan, however.  For example, local fishing cooperatives are adamantly against the proposal. In February, a fish with a record level of cesium, 5,100 times the government safety standard, was found near the plant's port.

But the most important task in decommissioning the reactors is the removal of the fuel rods, a process that will begin in November. Work is already under way to build a protective cover for the rods. 

There is still no plan to remove fuel rods for the other reactor units, which are much more damaged.

Although the government's aim is to finish decommissioning the plant in 30 to 40 years, the plan also relies on  technological advances, an assumption that presents a profound challenge  as Japan struggles to contain this daunting nuclear crisis.


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