September 23, 2020

Tokyo Utility Lays Out Plan for Its Reactors

The blueprint for action represents Tokyo Electric’s most concrete timetable yet for controlling the reactors and improving safety at the plant, which was damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami nearly six weeks ago.

The first part of the plan, expected to take three months, would include building new cooling systems, critical to preventing catastrophic releases of radioactive materials. The company then hopes to cover three badly damaged reactor buildings and install filters to reduce contamination being released into the air.

By announcing the construction of new cooling systems, the company implicitly acknowledged what outside experts had been warning for weeks: that the company’s earlier plan to repair the existing system was unlikely to work because the equipment was too badly damaged. The change in approach means that the country must resign itself to several more months of radioactive emissions — into the air and possibly into the Pacific — even though the plant appears to be less volatile than it was.

For weeks, workers have been consumed with reacting to a cascade of problems created not only by the original disasters but also by makeshift fixes for bringing the plant under control. By making its announcement on Sunday, Tokyo Electric was trying to show that conditions had apparently improved enough in recent days that it was now able to turn some of its attention to planning for the future.

“The company has been doing its utmost to prevent a worsening of the situation,” Tokyo Electric’s chairman, Tsunehisa Katsumata, told a news conference.

“We have put together a road map,” he said, adding, “We will put our full efforts into achieving these goals.”

On Sunday, meanwhile, the government said that evacuees who were forced to leave their homes near the Daiichi plant will be able to start returning in six to nine months, after the land is decontaminated. The announcement seemed to suggest that few places would be put off limits, as they were after the more devastating 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. But Japanese officials did not provide specifics about how contaminated the land was within several miles of the plant.

In any case, the statements were the clearest indication yet that the tens of thousands of people evacuated from the area and living in shelters will not soon be able to return to their homes, or to towns that were destroyed by the tsunami. It also means that the badly shaken government will have to continue to provide for the displaced people even as it struggles to rebuild from the quake and stabilize the economy.

One government official and a nuclear power expert said they thought Tokyo Electric’s plan could work, although one said the company should try for a cold shutdown sooner. A cold shutdown means that the temperature of the water in a reactor is below the boiling point. Although cooling must continue, the water will not boil away quickly, even at atmospheric pressure.  Boiling must be avoided because fuel rods have to be kept under water to avoid meltdown.

The Japanese government and the company, known as Tepco, have been overly optimistic in the past. Several weeks ago, for instance, the company said it hoped that its success in bringing live power lines back to the plant would enable workers to quickly restart the existing cooling systems even though the equipment would have had to survive not just the natural disasters, but the explosions that rocked the plant in the following days.

The announcement on Sunday that new cooling systems would be built was the first admission that efforts to restart the old system had failed.

Reporting was contributed by Keith Bradsher, Ken Ijichi, Yasuko Kamiizumi, Andrew Pollack, Kantaro Suzuki and Hiroko Tabuchi from Tokyo, and Matthew L. Wald from Washington.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=7a3c7b3b773a69b69bf6bf3cbaf15229

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