Japanese utility, US Department of Energy to co-operate in Fukushima nuclear plant cleanup

TOKYO – The utility operating Japan’s crippled nuclear power plant said Friday that it will work with the U.S. Department of Energy in decommissioning the site and in dealing with radioactive water problems.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. President Naomi Hirose said he agreed to accept U.S. help in discussions with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz as they visited the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant on Friday to inspect preparations to remove fuel rods from a storage pool.

The plant has recently had a series of mishaps, including leaks of radioactive water from storage tanks. The incidents, many of them caused by human error, have added to concerns about TEPCO’s ability to safely close down the plant, which suffered multiple meltdowns after being hit by a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Following criticism of its perceived reluctance to accept foreign help, Japan has recently begun to show more willingness to do so.

Operators of the plant are currently making final preparations to remove fuel rods from an uncovered cooling pool at Unit 4 — one of four reactor buildings damaged in the crisis, and the one considered at highest risk. Removing the fuel rods from the cooling pool is the first major step in a decommissioning process at the plant that is expected to take decades.

The fuel removal at Unit 4 was given preliminary approval by Japanese regulators on Wednesday and is to start by mid-November following a final go-ahead.

“As Japan continues to chart its sovereign path forward on the cleanup at the Fukushima site and works to determine the future of their energy economy, the United States stands ready to continue assisting our partners in this daunting yet indispensable task,” Moniz said in a statement late Friday. He said a U.S.-Japan commission to strengthen co-operation in civil nuclear research and development, as well as Fukushima cleanup, emergency response, and regulatory issues, will meet in Washington next week.

Despite public concerns over potential risks of radiation from the plant, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has pushed for a restart of the country’s nuclear reactors, which are currently all offline for safety checks. Moniz said he expects nuclear power will remain a crucial part of the energy mix as the world tries to mitigate global warming.

“We will work together to tackle many challenges toward decommissioning,” Hirose said in an interview with Japanese public broadcaster NHK. “I have high hopes that we will be able to benefit from U.S. experience and expertise at Fukushima Dai-ichi.”

The two sides hope to contribute to global nuclear power by sharing technology in stabilizing and decommissioning the plant, Hirose said.

“The success of the cleanup also has global significance. So we all have a direct interest in seeing that the next steps are taken well, efficiently and safely,” Moniz said in a speech Thursday in Tokyo.

Moniz, escorted by Hirose, inspected the Unit 4 pool area, as well as storage tanks for contaminated water, radioactive water treatment units and other facilities at the plant.

The reactor building was damaged by hydrogen explosions, and remains a source of international concern about a catastrophic open-air meltdown in case of a pool collapse, despite TEPCO’s repeated reassurance that it has reinforced the pool and that the building can withstand another major earthquake.

TEPCO also has appointed a former U.S. regulator who led the cleanup of the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the United States as an adviser.