Today, Japanese officials announced plans to decommission the infamous Fukushima nuclear power plant, which was heavily damaged earlier this year in the country’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. Four reactors will be removed from the site and scrapped. Officials plan to have the project completed within 40 years. Wait – is that a typo?
No, you read correctly: 40 years. Decommissioning a former nuclear site is long, difficult, and risky work. To compare, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission mandates a maximum time frame of 60 years for a plant to be decommissioned after it has ceased operations. “A time beyond that,” the Commission states, “would be considered only when necessary to protect public health and safety.” These concerns have to be taken into account when handling dangerous nuclear materials. As a 2001 article in Environment notes, while “decommissioning a power reactor poses substantially less health risk […] than operating a reactor,” the process nonetheless carries risk: “The most dangerous scenario would arise if the spent fuel pool cooling system malfunctions or coolant leaks out and the zirconium in the fuel rod is exposed to air. Were this chain of events to occur, the rods could spontaneously catch fire and release radioactive material into the atmosphere.” With those risks and recent events in mind, Japanese officials will face a difficult task in completing the project both efficiently and safely.