TOKYO • The operator of Japan's crippled Fukushima power plant has begun removing atomic fuel from inside a building housing one of the reactors that melted down in 2011.
The delicate operation yesterday represents the first time the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) has pulled out fuel rods from inside a highly contaminated building containing the melted-down reactor, and comes four years behind schedule.
Due to high radiation levels, technicians used remote-controlled equipment to haul fuel from a "storage pool" inside the building.
"We finally started this work. We will spend two years removing 566 units of fuel from reactor three," said Mr Takahiro Kimoto, a Tepco spokesman.
Tepco removed four units as planned yesterday, with workers continuing to remove debris that had fallen inside the pool and other areas, Mr Kimoto told reporters.
Engineers have had to contend with clearing earthquake debris inside the building and an array of other technical challenges, said Tepco spokesman Yuka Matsubara.
"We had to proceed carefully (to remove debris), and we needed to take measures as dust would waft up and increase radiation readings," she told Agence France-Presse.
Tepco engineers will not yet attempt to extract molten nuclear fuel that remains deep inside the mangled reactor. This is considered the most difficult part of the massive clean-up operation and is not expected to begin until 2021.
In the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, reactors one, two and three at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant suffered meltdowns after a deadly earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.
The tsunami killed around 18,000 people and caused widespread devastation, and the nuclear meltdown forced the evacuation of areas near the plant.