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NUCLEAR WATCH

Dec. 5, 2013

Inside
Fukushima
Daiichi

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Thousands of workers go inside Japan's damaged nuclear plant every day. But the public rarely gets a glimpse of what they do. Teams there continue the dangerous and complicated job of removing fuel rods from one of the reactor buildings. NHK WORLD's Yoichiro Tateiwa went inside the Fukushima Daiichi plant to take a closer look.

This is a part of Japan few people see anymore. We approach Fukushima Daiichi by bus, accompanied by Tokyo Electric Power Company officials.

"We pass through a checkpoint set by police, about 10 kilometers from the nuclear plant. Beyond here, access is severely restricted." Yoichiro Tateiwa / NHK WORLD

The next step for anyone who wants to get closer to the damaged reactors is to put on protective gear.

The workers are removing spent fuel rods from a pool in the reactor 4 building. This unit didn't suffer a meltdown. But radiation levels remain high because it's close to the other reactors, where meltdowns did occur.

The workers pluck highly-radioactive spent fuel assemblies from racks inside the pool and place them in a special container.

The whole process is carried out under water. It shields the radiation emitted by the fuel rods and keeps them cool.

Exposing the rods to the air could lead to a massive release of radiation. Workers are well aware there's no room for error.

Each team has 6, highly-qualified members. Two men stand at the top of a crane to control the removal of the assemblies.

Two others work as the eyes of the operation. They control an underwater camera and lighting equipment. They also record the procedure.

The remaining pair supervises the operation and keeps track of radiation levels to minimize exposure. If they detect high levels, they coordinate an evacuation.

Six teams rotate in shifts of maximum 2 hours per day.

"To give you an idea of the levels of radiation workers face, my device shows 100 microsieverts per hour. Some places show two hundreds microsievrts per hour. If I stayed here for 10 hours,That would exceed the limit for civilians. But nuclear workers can spend more time in this kind of environment. Their limit is 50 times higher." Yoichiro Tateiwa / NHK WORLD

"So far, radiation levels here have been kept lower than we initially estimated. We will continue our efforts to reduce the workers risk of radiation exposure as much as possible, by improving the working environment." Hara Takashi / Manager, TEPCO

Once the container is loaded with fuel assemblies, workers transfer it to a storage facility. The teams have to remove more than 1,500 assemblies from the reactor 4 building. Then, they'll extract fuel from the reactor 1, 2, and 3 buildings.

"TEPCO managers say they expect the entire operation to be finished by 2020. Then crews will start to remove molten fuel from the crippled reactors. There's no shortage of risk factors here. Workers have many stressful and difficult days ahead of them."

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