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Japan begins removing radioactive fuel rods from Fukushima reactor

Japanese engineers have begun removing fuel rods at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. The removal is a crucial first step toward a full cleanup and decommissioning that is expected to take decades.

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Fukushima fuel rod recovery begins

On Monday, workers started removing uranium and plutonium fuel rods from one of four reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) announced.

The Unit 4 reactor was offline at the time of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, and its core did not melt down as the other three did. Two other offline reactors also survived. However, hydrogen explosions damaged the Unit 4 building and weakened the structure, leaving it extremely vulnerable.

The building has since been reinforced, but experts say keeping so many fuel rods in a storage pool in the building still poses a major safety risk, and the threat of another earthquake is also a big concern.

The dangerous and delicate removal of the 1,533 sets of fuel rods will take at least until the end of 2014. Workers will first remove the 202 unused sets and then move on to more radioactive spent fuel. The pool where the rods are located also keeps three set of fuel rods that have been slightly damaged, and these will be removed last. Each set include about 60-80 rods.

Since Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami triggered the biggest nuclear disaster in a generation, the Fukushima plant has suffered several cleanup setbacks. Following the disaster, hundreds of tanks were built around the plant to store huge amounts of radioactive water leaking from damaged reactors.

The full decommissioning of the plant is expected to take decades.

hc/dr (AFP, AP)

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