Japan's government said Wednesday that it could take 40 years to clean up and fully decommission a nuclear plant that went into meltdown after it was struck by a huge tsunami.
Nuclear crisis minister Goshi Hosono suggested that the timetable is ambitious, acknowledging that decommissioning three reactors with severely melted fuel plus spent fuel rods at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is an "unprecedented project," and that the process is not "totally foreseeable."
"But we must do it even though we may face difficulties along the way," Mr. Hosono told a news conference.
Under a detailed road map approved earlier Wednesday following consultation with experts and nuclear regulators, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) will start removing spent fuel rods within two to three years from their pools located on the top floor of each of their reactor buildings.
After that is completed, Tepco will start removing the melted fuel, most of which is believed to have fallen to the bottom of the core or even down to the bottom of the larger, beaker-shaped containment vessel, a process that is expected to begin in 10 years and completed 25 years from now. The location and conditions of the melted fuel is not exactly known.
That's more than twice as long as it took to remove the fuel from the Unit 2 reactor at Three Mile Island that suffered a partial meltdown in 1979.
Trade Minister Yukio Edano promised that authorities would ensure safety at the plant. He also vowed to pay attention to the concerns of tens of thousands of residents who were displaced when the plant was knocked out by Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami, spawning the world's worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl accident in 1986.
"We must not allow the work toward decommissioning to cause any new risks or delay the return of the residents to their homes," he said.
Completely decommissioning the plant would require five to 10 more years after the fuel debris removal, making the entire process up to 40 years, according to the road map.
The road map for Fukushima is twice as long as the time set aside to decommission the Tokai Power Station, the country's first commercial reactor that stopped operation in 1998.
The process still requires the development of robots and technology that can do much of the work remotely because of extremely high radiation levels inside the reactor buildings. Officials say they are aiming to have such robots by 2013 and start decontaminating the reactor buildings in 2014.