Photo/IllutrationA nuclear fuel assembly, right, is transferred to a special container in a storage pool at the No. 3 reactor building on April 15. The image was taken from a screen showing live footage of the remote-controlled operation at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. (Hiroshi Ishizuka)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Over a grainy live feed, a remotely guided robotic arm could be seen carefully grasping a nuclear fuel assembly in a storage pool and then lifting it up for removal, the first attempt among crippled reactors.

Such was the scene on April 15 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, where the facility's operator started removing spent fuel from the No. 3 reactor building using remote-control equipment.

It is Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s first attempt to remove spent fuel from one of the No. 1 through No. 3 reactors that melted down during the 2011 nuclear accident.

Removal of the 566 nuclear fuel assemblies, which have been kept in the storage pool in the No. 3 reactor building, is expected to take two years to complete.

All nuclear fuel assemblies in the No. 4 reactor building, which had been shut down at the time of the accident, were removed by the end of 2014.

Reporters were allowed to view the operation from around 8:30 a.m. on monitors installed in a building. The removal was operated from a control room about 500 meters from the No. 3 reactor building.

Each spent nuclear fuel assembly is about 4.5 meters long and weighs 250 kilograms.

After a nuclear fuel assembly was lifted, it was transferred to a special transport container that can hold up to seven of them in water.

The container will then be carried out of the reactor building by crane and lowered about 30 meters to a trailer at ground level for temporary storage in a common pool nearby.

The unprecedented operation is expected to meet with various difficulties due to repeated problems with the crane and other equipment, installed at the No. 3 reactor building.

Removal of the spent fuel from the No. 1 and No. 2 reactor buildings will start in fiscal 2023.

TEPCO plans to start removing melted nuclear fuel debris from one of the three embattled reactors in fiscal 2021.