Finding and removing melted fuel rods at Fukushima No. 1 — Nikkei Asian Review, The Japan Times

Nikkei Asian Review, “Survey fails to find melted rods at Fukushima reactors”:

” TOKYO — A remote survey of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant’s No. 1 reactor was unable to locate and photograph melted nuclear fuel, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings said Thursday, complicating efforts to remove that material as part of an extensive cleanup.

Tepco on Saturday sent a robot equipped with a camera into the containment vessel for the No. 1 unit. The majority of fuel rods have melted through the unit’s pressure vessel since the plant was struck by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. The prevailing view has been that those melted fuel rods are now sitting under 2.5m of water at the bottom of the containment vessel.

The plan was to explore the bottom section by dipping a camera into the pool of water for the first time. But unexpected barriers such as pipes kept the camera around 1 meter from the bottom in most of the 10 positions surveyed instead of the intended depth of about 40cm from the bottom. While the camera was able to capture sand-like sediment, there was no trace of the melted fuel rods. Adding a fifth day to the investigation turned up no further evidence.

Yuichi Okamura, acting general manager of Tepco’s onsite nuclear power division, offered few comments at the utility’s Thursday news conference, saying only that “photographs and radiation data will need to be evaluated in conjunction with one another.”

The timeline set by Tepco and the government for decommissioning the Fukushima plant aims to begin extraction of melted-down material from the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 reactor in 2021 or earlier. An extraction plan is to be decided this summer. But the fact that the status of the melted rods still remains unknown underscores the seriousness of the accident.

The results of the robot survey were “limited,” according to Masanori Naitoh, director of nuclear safety analysis at the Institute of Applied Energy’s Nuclear Power Engineering Center. “It would be difficult to set a plan for extraction based on the information from this survey alone.”

An investigation of the No. 2 reactor also fell short, with the survey robot unable to reach the targeted spot right under the unit’s pressure vessel. ”

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The Japan Times, “Tepco’s biggest hurdle: How to remove melted fuel from crippled Fukushima reactors”:

” Six years after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, recent investigations underneath the damaged reactor 2 using cameras and robots came close to identifying melted fuel rods for the first time.

Experts say getting a peek inside the containment vessel of reactor 2 was an accomplishment. But it also highlighted how tough it will be to further pinpoint the exact location of the melted fuel, let alone remove it some time in the future.

The biggest hurdle is the extremely lethal levels of radiation inside the containment vessel that not only prevent humans from getting near but have also crippled robots and other mechanical devices.

Safely removing the melted fuel would be a best-case scenario but the risks and costs should be weighed against the option of leaving the melted fuel in the crippled reactors, some experts said.

“The work to probe inside the containment vessels and remove the fuel debris will be extremely tough because of the high radiation levels,” said Hiroshi Miyano, who heads a panel of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, which is discussing ways to decommission the Fukushima plant and making recommendations to the government.

The government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. are trying to find a way to remedy the situation but existing methods and technologies may not be sufficient, Miyano said.

In search of melted fuel

The world’s attention turned to the melted fuel rods in late January when Tepco inserted a 10-meter-plus tube equipped with a camera into the containment vessel of reactor 2 to capture images under the pressure vessel that housed the fuel rods.

The images showed black lumps scattered beneath the pressure vessel.

When the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and monstrous tsunami hit, the plant suffered a blackout and lost its key cooling system, triggering meltdowns in reactors 1, 2 and 3. The melted nuclear fuel rods penetrated the pressure vessels and fell into the containment vessels.

Tepco had put cameras inside the containment vessels several times in the past six years but January’s probe was the first to apparently find melted fuel debris.

“We understand that this is a big milestone. We could finally get to see what it was like underneath the pressure vessel,” said Yuichi Okamura, general manager of Tepco’s nuclear power and plant siting division.

“This is critical information in order to remove the fuel debris.”

Radiation barrier

But Tepco hasn’t confirmed that the black lumps are melted fuel, saying they could be paint or cable wrappings, and further investigation is needed.

Capturing the images may be progress but the robot and camera forays have not provided enough information about how to deal with the melted fuel.

Last month, Tepco sent a remote-controlled, scorpion-shaped robot in to further probe inside the reactor 2 containment vessel. But the robot failed before it reached under the pressure vessel after a tire became stuck.

The robot’s dosimeter measured radiation levels of 210 sieverts per hour — enough to kill humans instantly.

While 210 sieverts per hour indicate the melted fuel was nearby, the radiation crippled the robot’s electronics, including its semiconductors and cameras, indicating that the further use of robots to pinpoint the melted fuel will be difficult, robotics experts said.

There are computer chips “designed to withstand a certain level of radiation, but the level inside the containment vessel is totally different,” said Satoshi Tadokoro, a professor at Tohoku University who is an expert on disasters and rescue robots.

The radiation can damage a robot’s chips that serve as their brains, causing the devices to lose control, said Tadokoro, whose robots have also been used at the Fukushima plant.

“On top of the high level of radiation, the entrance (to the containment vessel) for the robot is very small,” restricting what types of robots can be used to hunt for the melted fuel, he said.

Tepco said the opening it created on the side of the reactor 2 containment vessel is about 11 cm in diameter.

Fuel removal strategy

Tepco is set to conduct internal probes of the reactor 1 containment vessel this month and is preparing similar missions for reactor 3.

The government and utility then plan to adopt a basic fuel removal strategy this summer and fine-tune the plan next year, with the actual fuel removal taking place in or after 2021.

There are essentially three options for the strategy, according to the Tokyo-based International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID), which is developing technologies for the Fukushima plant decommission.

One option is to flood the containment vessels with water and use a crane above the reactors to hoist up the melted fuel. The second option is to carry out the same process but without water. The third is to install removal equipment through the side of the containment vessel.

There are merits and drawbacks to each option, said Shoji Yamamoto, who heads the team developing technologies to create the fuel removal devices at IRID.

The flooding option can block radiation using water, but if the fuel melts into the water, it could pose a risk of recriticality. The debris may need to be cut into pieces for removal, but this process would enable water to get between multiple pieces, creating the condition for recriticality. For nuclear chain reactions to happen there needs to be a certain distance between nuclear fuel and water.

If there is no water, the recriticality risk is minimal but the massive radiation levels cannot be blocked, Yamamoto said.

Tepco’s Okamura said being able to block radiation with water is a huge plus, but noted the reactor 2 containment vessel had cracks and holes that could let injected coolant water escape.

With the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the U.S., the flooding option was used to retrieve the melted fuel in the 1980s. But the key difference was that all of the melted fuel stayed inside the pressure vessel, so it was easier to flood the reactor.

Because the melted fuel in reactors 1, 2 and 3 at the Fukushima plant all penetrated the pressure vessels and fell into the containment vessels, extracting it from the top or the side was a tough call, Yamamoto said, noting it was important to know the exact location of the melted fuel.

The distance between the top of the pressure vessel and the bottom of the containment vessel is about 45 meters and some parts inside the pressure vessels will need to be removed if Tepco tries to remove the debris inside the containment vessels from the top.

“If we know that the melted fuel is concentrated in the containment vessels, it will be more efficient to remove it from the side” because the entry point is closer, Yamamoto said.

Whatever option is decided, Yamamoto stressed that maintaining the fuel removal device will be difficult because the radiation will probably cripple it.

“The fuel removal device will be controlled remotely … it will be broken somewhere down the line and the parts will have to be replaced, considering its (ability to withstand) radiation,” he said.

“Given that, maintenance will have to be done remotely, too, and that will be a big challenge.”

To remove or not

Another option altogether is for Tepco to leave the melted fuel where it is.

During a media tour of the Fukushima No. 1 plant last month, Okamura of Tepco said the utility intended to collect the melted fuel because leaving it was “not an appropriate way” to manage nuclear fuel.

Miyano of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan said the debris must be removed because radioactive materials, including nuclear fuel, must be strictly controlled under international rules requiring strict monitoring.

Domestic nuclear power plant operators have to report the amount of nuclear fuel they have to the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which then reports to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“There is the question of whether the government and Tepco decide not to remove the fuel debris. That would be an international issue,” said Miyano, adding that a consensus from the international community would be needed.

At the same time, Miyano said debate and analysis will be required to decide which choice would be best by looking at various factors, including how much it will cost to pick up all the melted fuel and where to store it. ”

by Kazuaki Nagata

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Nuclear fuel debris that penetrated reactor pressure vessel possibly found at Fukushima No. 1 — The Japan Times

” Tepco on Monday found what may be melted nuclear fuel debris that penetrated the reactor 2 pressure vessel at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. said more analysis and investigation is needed to confirm that the black lumps detected in the reactor’s containment vessel are indeed fuel debris.

The steel pressure vessel houses the nuclear fuel rods and is set up inside the surrounding containment vessel.

“At this point, it’s difficult to clearly identify what they are,” said Yuichi Okamura, general manager of Tepco’s nuclear power and plant siting division, during an evening news conference at the utility’s Tokyo headquarters.

Video footage from Monday’s probe showed black lumps that looked like something that had melted and then congealed, sticking to parts of a steel grating area at the base of the containment vessel.

The material could be melted paint, cable covers or pipe wrappings, Okamura said.

Still, this is the first time Tepco has detected anything in any of the facility’s three wrecked reactors that might be melted fuel rods since the outbreak of the crisis in March 2011. Okamura described the finding as “valuable information.”

The location of the debris and what form it is in are critical to eventually recovering the fuel.

Tepco plans next month to send in a remote-controlled robot equipped with a thermometer and dosimeter. Analyzing the temperature and radiation level will help identify whether the lumps are fuel debris, Okamura said.

The fuel melted after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami knocked out Fukushima No. 1’s power supply, including the vital cooling functions.

It is believed that reactor No. 2’s fuel rods melted and penetrated the bottom of the 20-cm-thick pressure vessel and fell in to the containment vessel.

Tepco has been conducting an investigation to check the interior of the containment vessel since last week.

In a previous try, workers inserted a rod equipped with a small camera as a precursor to sending in the remote-controlled robot.

The first attempt turned up nothing of note, but the utility then tried a longer rod — 10.5 meters long — on Monday that could capture images of the area beneath the pressure vessel.

The video footage also showed that water droplets were falling, which Tepco said must be cooling water being injected into the damaged pressure vessel.

Reactor 2 is one of three reactors, including 1 and 3, that experienced fuel meltdowns. ”

by Kazuaki Nagata

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AP Interview: Fukushima plant’s new ice wall not watertight — AP via ABC News

” Coping with the vast amounts of ground water flowing into the broken Fukushima nuclear plant — which then becomes radiated and seeps back out — has become such a problem that Japan is building a 35 billion yen ($312 million) “ice wall” into the earth around it.

But even if the frozen barrier built with taxpayers’ money works as envisioned, it won’t completely block all water from reaching the damaged reactors because of gaps in the wall and rainfall, creating as much as 50 tons of contaminated water each day, said Yuichi Okamura, a chief architect of the massive project.

“It’s not zero,” Okamura said of the amount of water reaching the reactors in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week. He is a general manager at Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, which operates the facility that melted down after it was hit by a tsunami in 2011, prompting 150,000 people to evacuate.

Workers have rigged pipes that constantly spray water into the reactors to keep the nuclear debris inside from overheating, but coping with what to do with the resulting radiated water has been a major headache. So far, the company has stored the water in nearly 1,000 huge tanks around the plant, with more being built each week.

TEPCO resorted to devising the 1.5-kilometer (1-mile)-long ice wall around the facility after it became clear it had to do something drastic to stem the flow of groundwater into the facility’s basement and keep contaminated water from flowing back out.

“It’s a vicious cycle, like a cat-and-mouse game,” Okamura said of the water-related issues. “We have come up against many unexpected problems.”

The water woes are just part of the many obstacles involved in controlling and dismantling the Fukushima Dai-chi plant, a huge task that will take 40 years. No one has even seen the nuclear debris. Robots are being created to capture images of the debris. The radiation is so high no human being can do that job.

The ice wall, built by construction company Kajima Corp., is being turned on in sections for tests, and the entire freezing process will take eight months since it was first switched on in late March. The entire wall requires as much electricity as would power 13,000 Japanese households.

Edward Yarmak, president of Arctic Foundations, based in Anchorage, Alaska, which designs and installs ground freezing systems and made an ice wall for the Oak Ridge reactor site, says the solution should work at Fukushima.

“The refrigeration system has just been turned on, and it takes time to form the wall. First, the soil freezes concentrically around the pipes and when the frozen cylinders are large enough, they coalesce and form a continuous wall. After time, the wall increases in thickness,” he said in an email.

But critics say the problem of the groundwater reaching the reactors was a no-brainer that should have been projected.

Building a concrete wall into the hill near the plant right after the disaster would have minimized the contaminated water problem considerably, says Shigeaki Tsunoyama, honorary professor and former president of University of Aizu in Fukushima.

Even at the reduced amount of 50 tons a day, the contaminated water produced at Fukushima will equal what came out of Three Mile Island’s total in just eight months because of the prevalence of groundwater in Fukushima, he said.

Although TEPCO has set 2020 as the goal for ending the water problems, Tsunoyama believes that’s too optimistic.

“The groundwater coming up from below can never become zero,” he said in a telephone interview. “There is no perfect answer.”

Okamura acknowledged the option to build a barrier in the higher elevation near the plant was considered in the early days after the disaster. But he defended his company’s actions.

The priority was on preventing contaminated water from escaping into the Pacific Ocean, he said. Various walls were built along the coastline, and radiation monitors show leaks have tapered off over the last five years.

Opponents of nuclear power say the ice wall is a waste of taxpayers’ money and that it may not work.

“From the perspective of regular people, we have serious questions about this piece of research that’s awarded a construction giant,” says Kanna Mitsuta, director of ecology group Friends of the Earth Japan. “Our reaction is: Why an ice wall?” ”

by Yuri Kageyama and Mari Yamaguchi

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