Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Fukushima nuclear plant missing 600 tonnes of highly radioactive, melted uranium -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

TONY EASTLEY: We all misplace things from time to time, but at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, its managers have lost a staggering 600 tonnes of highly radioactive, melted uranium.

The man in charge of cleaning up the plant, Naohiro Masuda, admits the exact location of the melted fuel remains a mystery.

As well he's told the ABC's Foreign Correspondent program that the plant operator, TEPCO, still hasn't developed the technology to retrieve blobs of fuel from deep inside three reactors.

Correspondent Mark Willacy filed this report. It begins with him speaking through his mask and safety equipment as he enters the broken reactor building.

MARK WILLACY: Going high. The closer we get to Reactor 2, Reactor 3, right, wow.

Our voices are muffled through our masks. We're in full protective gear, and as we walk next to the Fukushima reactor buildings, my TEPCO guide suddenly waves a radiation meter in my face it shows the level climbing fast.

I'm just metres away from the main reactor buildings here at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Behind me, Reactor Three. Next to it, Reactor Two, and there is Reactor One.

And it could present particular problems for TEPCO because that is where probably where the worst meltdown occurred.

They don't know where the nuclear fuel is and it could take TEPCO several years to even work that out.

GREGORY JACZKO: This really is unchartered territory. Nobody really knows where the fuel is at this point and this fuel is still very radioactive and will be for a long time.

MARK WILLACY: Gregory Jaczko knows what he's talking about. He was the chief of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission when the Fukushima reactors melted down five years ago.

In an interview with the ABC in Washington, Dr Jaczko said efforts by TEPCO to pinpoint the location of the blobs of reactor fuel have so far failed.

GREGORY JACZKO: They've sent in some robots. All the robots have been disabled, the instrumentation, the cameras or whatever have been disabled because of the high radiation fields.

MARK WILLACY: TEPCO's chief of decommissioning at the Fukushima reactors admits he does not know exactly where the melted fuel is. But in an interview with the ABC, Naohiro Masuda for the first time revealed how vast it is.

NAOHIRO MASUDA (translation): It's estimated that 200 tonnes of debris lies within each unit. So in total about 600 tonnes of melted debris fuel and a mixture of concrete and other metals are likely to be here.

MARK WILLACY: So how will TEPCO extract 600 tonnes of melted reactor fuel, when it still doesn't know exactly where it is?

Fukushima decommissioning chief Naohiro Masuda acknowledges that the technology TEPCO needs to retrieve the fuel still has not been invented.

NAOHIRO MASUDA (translation): What we're trying to do here is something no-one else has experienced. We're working on something for which there is no textbook. So we'll have to write the textbook ourselves.

MARK WILLACY: But the former head of the US Nuclear watchdog, Gregory Jaczko, doubts whether TEPCO can write the textbook for removing so much highly radioactive fuel, because the nuclear industry has never faced such a daunting task before.

GREGORY JACZKO: You may just wind up having to leave it there and somehow entomb it as it is, I mean that's certainly a possibility.

At this point, I don't think anybody really knows. It is a challenge, there is no playbook, they're making this up as they go along and that's in a lot of ways, the best they can do.

(Sound of alarm)

MARK WILLACY: Back next to the reactors, our tour is interrupted again by a radiation alarm.

We're just between Reactor 4 and Reactor 3. But the radiation level has gone up to a point where our TEPCO guides are not comfortable going any further. So we'll head back.

We leave the reactor buildings behind and with them, the 600 tonnes of melted nuclear fuel that lies somewhere deep inside them.

TEPCO insists this is a 30 to 40 year job, but given the sheer scale of the task and the lack of tools to complete it, many believe that forecast is optimistic - even fanciful.

This is Mark Willacy in Fukushima for PM.