What a surprise about nuclear power plants at Fukushima!

Five years after the Fukushima nuclear plant was crippled during a devastating earthquake and tsunami, the plant operator has admitted that only a fraction of the clean-up has been accomplished to make the site safe.

As Japan prepares to mark the anniversary of the world’s second-worst nuclear disaster, it is clear that the progress to date – clearing up debris, and installing protective structures around the four reactor buildings that were destroyed – is largely skin deep.

The most technically complex and dangerous tasks, including locating and removing the nuclear fuel that has burned through the pressure vessels of three of the reactors and is believed to have pooled at the bottom of the containment chambers, are yet to begin.

The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), believes that the work will take at least another 40 years to complete.


The current estimate by the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is that it will cost at least £100 billion to decommission the 19 existing United Kingdom nuclear sites.[6] Due to the radioactivity in the reactor structure, decommissioning takes place in stages. The plans of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority for decommissioning reactors have an average 50 year time frame.

It takes 50 years to dismantle a not-explodey nuclear reactor. It takes near 50 years to dismantle an explodey nuclear reactor.

My word.

27 thoughts on “What a surprise about nuclear power plants at Fukushima!”

  1. “…installing protective structures around the four reactor buildings that were destroyed…”

    I recall it was only one reactor building which was destroyed – the one for reactor number four, due to a gas explosion. Haven’t they got this mixed up?

  2. So Much For Subtlety

    The longer they wait, the easier and cheaper it will be. The safer too. After all the first thing sensible people do with spent fuel rods is stick them in a pool of water for 10 or 20 years. That keeps them cool and allows many of the daughter products to decay. Their radioactivity drops a great deal in the first 10 years or so.

    So they can clean it up now – dirty, dangerous and expensive – or they can wait twenty years – cleaner, safer and cheaper.

    As long as there isn’t another disaster it is a no-brainer.

  3. I think you mean “melty-downy” not “explody”

    I am surprised. It takes no longer to decommission a badly damaged one than one in operational condition.Well done those men.

  4. 50 years to decommission 19 nuclear power station. 40 years to clean up 1 melted power stations. Not a direct comparison unless I am missing something?

  5. 50 years to decommission 19 nuclear power station.

    No, 50 years to decommission each of 19 nuclear power stations, on average.

  6. @ bemused
    Yes, you are missing something.
    “The plans of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority for decommissioning reactors have an average 50 year time frame.”
    Tim is comparing the average time to decommission a UK power station after its fuel has been used to the time that it is expected to take to decommission Fukudshima which currently contains unspent radioactive fuel.
    Some people might deduce therefrom that the Japanese are pursuing this as fast as is safely possible instead of the most cost-effective rate.

  7. @john77
    Thanks for the clarification. It still seems an awful long time to execute a decontamination process and then deconstruction and disposal of a single plant.

  8. “GD: “Any word of how many people have died as a result of Fukushima? Out of single figures yet?”

    When you say died the only figure that matters is died from that nasty wadio-hactivity that so fright-hens our dear eco-freak buddies.

    That figure is none.

  9. The reason is that you leave it to go cold first. Radioactively cold, that is. This takes some 40 years or so. Then you clean it up.

  10. I think the significant difference is that the 50 year decom timetable in the UK is based around the fact that a defuelled and sealed reactor is perfectly safe to leave for decades. Fukushima is a non-sealed environment with loads of only lightly contained spilled fuel rods. Time will fix the problem, but if there’s another tsunami the risks go way up.

  11. The one near me was closed in 1995 and they expect to have finished in 2020, so 25 years. Quicker than the 50 years quoted, but still in the same ballpark. And that was only a relatively small experimental site, so 40 years for a big one that’s had huge problems seems OK.

  12. Outsource it to Crapita. Their m.o. with software is to reduce delivery time by 50-75% by throwing employees at the project, with predictable outcomes (F Brooks, T De Marco, et al).

  13. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    I agree with Johnny Bonk, I reckon that this is all just jobs for the boys.

    As far as I can tell, the trickiest bit of the operation is nicking the lead off of the cutrch roof to line the Transit van.

    50 quid to the nightwartchman to open the disused colliery in Yorkshire and Bob’s yer uncle !

  14. So Much For Subtlety

    Tim Worstall – “The reason is that you leave it to go cold first. Radioactively cold, that is. This takes some 40 years or so. Then you clean it up.”

    Well there are two different related problems here. The main difference is that in Japan the fuel has leaked all over the place. Which means they really have to delay as long as possible. Let the fuel cool down. When dismantling a reactor in Britain, the fuel is dealt with separately – taken away ideally. That leaves the building. Now you could dismantle this rapidly if you wanted to. The Americans have dismantled reactors in five years or less. Shippingport I think, the granddaddy of them all, was dismantled in five years and I think you can go and picnic on the site if you want. It is certainly true of Yankee Rowe:


    There isn’t a lot of stuff left to decay once the fuel has gone. Everything that goes into a reactor core is going to be a problem to varying degrees. That means a lot of water for cooling and/or moderation. Some of it will have become tritium which has a half life of 12 1/3 years. So waiting three half lives makes sense. It also means a lot of stainless steel for things like the reactor vessel. That contains nickel. Which will be radioactive.

    These are problems but they are several orders of magnitude less of a problem than escaped fuel all over the place.

    Which leads me to believe the main reason Britain takes 40 years is that we just don’t do it very often. How do you attract someone to work in the industry? Tell them they will have five years of intense work every forty years? Or that they will have a slow and steady forty year career? The Americans can do it more often so it can be done quickly. If we need to decommission one every forty years, then logically we will employ professionals who will decommission one every forty years.

    johnny bonk – “I bet I could de-commission our old nuclear power stations for much less than 100,000,000,000 GBP.”

    We could do what the Italians do. They closed all their reactors after a vote in 1987, but as far as I know they have not actually cleaned any of them up. There is an official government body in charge of doing something about it. Top men working on it, no doubt. But it looks to me as if they are all out to lunch – it looks to me that they just shut the door and walked away. Leave it for someone else to deal with.

  15. Well I went to a talk not long ago. Tip, find out if any of the engineering institutions run public lectures nearby – most do, and they can be very interesting.
    Anyway, this particular talk was by someone expert in the industry and decommissioning of reactors was part of the talk. The actual subject was the low level waste repository at Drigg.
    When they built the Magnox reactors, they did in fact have a plan – switch off, keep it cool, take the fuel out, keep it cool, take away all the ancillary stuff (little or no radioactivity there) and you are left with the core and containment. You now wrap this in a block of concrete – about the size of a house – and post a guard in case … well perhaps someone will spray graffiti on it ! You then leave it for 100 years and by then it’s so radioactive that you can cut a hole in the side, walk in without protective gear, and pick up the blocks of graphite by hand.
    Cheap, easy, very little “radioactive waste”.
    Instead, to pander to the anti nuclear lobby there are plans to dismantle stuff a lot sooner – thus the anti-nuclear lobby are actually responsible for creating nuclear waste !
    And of course, a lot of “nuclear waste” is less radioactive than bananas, or the ground in parts of the UK.

  16. So Much For Subtlety

    simon – “Instead, to pander to the anti nuclear lobby there are plans to dismantle stuff a lot sooner – thus the anti-nuclear lobby are actually responsible for creating nuclear waste !”

    It is the f**king Brent Spar all over again. There was a perfectly good plan to dispose of it. Greenpeace insisted it was evil incarnate. They lied and lied and lied some more. So they had to bury it on land.

    Greens have no interest or concern for the environment at all

  17. Yes, just like the Brent Spar – only Greenpeace haven’t admitted they were wrong yet with nuclear decommissioning ! IIRC they admitted after the fact that they were wrong about Brent Spar and it would in fact have been environmentally friendly to have left it there – once taking into account the habitat the empty structure would have created.

  18. @SMFS: The main difference between the US light water reactors and the UK gas-cooled reactors is the graphite that served as a moderator and was highly activated to C-14 which has a half life of 5700 years. The decommissioning concept with the 100 year long “Care and Maintenance Period” which is something similar to “Safe Enclosure” for light water reactors only has the effect that short lived isotopes like the gamma emitters Co-60 and Cs-137 decay to safer levels. The C-14 is still there, with more or less the same activity. That means you do not have the high risk of direct (gamma) radiation anymore but still the risk of incorporating the beta emitter C-14.

    Additionally (and that, Simon, is why I would not go in there without protective gear) graphite is very brittle and when you cut it, it forms particulate matter with very small particle sizes that can even penetrate your alveoles. So, even after a hundred years I would be careful cutting the graphite and taking it out. Without protective gear you would for sure end up with much higher amount of C-14 in your body than normal or healthy.

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