Radiation levels are currently at their highest inside a damaged reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station since the plant went through a triple meltdown six years ago.
Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the plant’s operator, said that the atmospheric readings of 530 sieverts an hour had been recorded inside the containment vessel of one of the three reactors that were involved in the meltdown during the time when the plant was seriously affected by a huge tsunami in March 2011 that struck the north-east coast of Japan. This reading, which some experts have described as “unimaginable” is substantially higher than the previous record of 73 sieverts an hour in the same part of the reactor.
The seriously high radiation readings demonstrate the scale of the task that is now confronting thousands of workers, which consequently means that pressure is now building upon Tepco to begin decommissioning the plant, which is a process that can take around four decades to complete. Just one dose of one sievert can cause radiation sickness and nausea, whilst an increase to just 5 sieverts would kill half of those exposed to it within just one month. A single dose of 10 sieverts would prove to be fatal within just a few weeks.
Additionally, Tepco also announced that they have discovered a one metre hole in the metal grating beneath the same reactor’s pressure vessel, through the study of an image analysis. The hole is believed to have been created by nuclear fuel that had melted, before penetrating the vessel, following the tsunami that knocked out the back-up cooling system. Tepco’s spokesman Tatsuhiro Yamagishi told AFP, “It may have been caused by nuclear fuel that would have melted and made a hole in the vessel, but it is only a hypothesis at this stage. We believe the captured images offer very useful information, but we still need to investigate given that it is very difficult to assume the actual condition inside.”
Due to the discovered presence of the dangerously high radiation, efforts to safely dismantle the plant will now be complicated even further. The firm announced that radiation was not leaking outside the reactor, and that Tepco intends to send a remote-controlled robot in to the No 2 reactor’s containment vessel to encounter radiation at varying levels. However, the robot is only designed to withstand exposure of 1,000 sieverts in total, meaning that it will not survive inside for more than two hours before malfunctioning will begin.
Removing the melted fuel safely will prove to be a huge and unprecedented challenge in the history of nuclear power, especially as Tepco have yet to identify the exact location and condition of the substance. This is due to dangerously high radiation preventing engineers from accurately gauging the state of fuel deposits. So far, images of dark lumps have been released, which are believed to have been found beneath reactor No 2, and could be melted uranium fuel rods. The government announced in December last year that the estimated cost of decommissioning the plant, together with decontaminating the surrounding area, paying compensation to those involved, and storing the radioactive waste, is now currently around 21.5tn yen, which is £150 billion. This figure has almost doubled from the original estimate that was released in 2013.
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