1 Apr 2011

Removing melting fuel rods 'could take 50-100 years'

9:45 pm on 1 April 2011

A nuclear expert has warned that it could take up to 100 years before melting fuel rods can be safely removed from Japan's earthquake/tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.

Water is still being poured into the damaged reactors to cool the rods, but John Price, a former member of the safety policy unit at Britain's National Nuclear Corporation, says the radiation leaks will be ongoing and it could take 50 to 100 years before the rods have completely cooled and been removed.

"As the water leaks out, you keep on pouring water in, so this leak will go on for ever," Dr Price says, the ABC reports.

"There has to be some way of dealing with it. The water is connecting in tunnels and concrete-lined pits at the moment and the question is whether they can pump it back.

"The final thing is that the reactors will have to be closed and the fuel removed, and that is 50 to 100 years away."

So far, so good, says another expert

But Laurence Williams, professor of nuclear safety at England's University of Central Lancashire and the former head of the British nuclear regulator, is relatively comfortable with the situation, which he says he has been monitoring for the past couple of weeks.

"My view," he says, "is that as there hasn't been any sort of major catastrophic release of radioactivity, if they can continue to get the fresh water into the reactors and cool them, the decay heat is now fairly stabilising.

"It will take some time before it disappears but so far, so good. But it will take some time to bring under control."

Both experts agree that capping the damaged reactors with concrete is not an option.

'A single stretcher' in case of accident

Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal newspaper says it has obtained disaster-readiness plans that show the facility only had one satellite phone and a single stretcher in case of an accident.

In 2002, the plant's operator, Tepco, admitted to falsifying safety reports. That led to all of its 17 boiling-water reactors being shut down for inspection.

Tepco has already vowed to dismantle the four reactors at the centre of the world's worst atomic accident in 25 years, but Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan says the Fukushima plant must be scrapped altogether.

170,000 living in shelters

In north-east Japan, devastated by the massive earthquake and tsunami on 11 March, more than 170,000 people are still living in shelters.

About 28,000 people are listed as dead or missing.

Thousands of military personnel using ships and helicopters are involved in an intensive search for the remains of victims.