Operators of Japan’s nuclear power plant in Fukushima have started the milestone task of removing fuel from the first of three reactors that melted down during the 2011 disaster.

The process is a critical step in the decades-long decommissioning process to ensure the plant is not vulnerable to further nuclear accidents if hit by another major quake and tsunami.

It is the first time operators Tokyo Electric Power Co. have removed fuel from any of the three reactors that went into meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi plant following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

On Monday, workers started removing 514 units of spent fuel and 52 units of unused fuel, a sensitive process that will reportedly take an estimated two years, before it is repeated in the two other reactors.

Due to high radiation levels inside the reactor building, workers located around 500 meters away are remotely operating a crane built beneath a roof to raise fuel from a storage rack in the pool before placing it into a protective cask.

The removal process takes place underwater to prevent radiation leaks, with workers loading seven fuel units into each cask, which is then lifted from the pool, lowered into a truck and then stored in a safer cooling pool at another site on the plant.

An earlier process involved removing 1,535 nuclear fuel units from the No. 4 reactor, which was not as badly damaged in the disaster, with comparatively low radiation levels meaning workers were able to enter the building.

Tepco officials told Japanese media that the remote operation of a crane added a particularly challenging dimension to the removal of nuclear fuel from reactor No. 3. A timeline complied by Tepco shortly after the disaster aimed to remove of all spent nuclear fuel from all four reactors by the end of the 2021 financial year.

“We do not believe the process will proceed with zero problems,” Akira Ono, president of the Fukushima Daiichi Decontamination and Decommissioning Engineering Co., told the Asahi newspaper.

The complex task of decommissioning the plant has been beset with a string of technical issues, complex challenges and delays in recent years, from radioactive water leakages to storage problems.

The fuel removal process in reactor No 3 began just a day after prime minister Shinzo Abe visited the Fukushima nuclear plant on Sunday in order to inspect the decommissioning work.

Acknowledging the “many challenges” that remain, Abe told media: “The state will continue to stand at the forefront of the decommissioning work and the containment of radioactive water (that is accumulating at the plant).” 

Earlier, Abe attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the opening of a new local government office in nearby Okuma, where an evacuation order was lifted for parts of the town for the first time since the 2011 disaster.

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