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Crews 'Facing 100-Year Battle' at Fukushima

David Mark and Mark Willacy

Fukushima Nuclear Plant -- Handout photo taken by a camera attached to the tip of the arm of a concrete squeeze pump shows inside the broken building housing the No. 4 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Fukushima Prefecture on March 24, 2011. Steam is seen rising from around a fuel-handling crane (top L, green). The pump's 50-meter arm has been used to pour water into the spent fuel pool of the reactor as part of efforts to get the crippled plant under control. (Photo courtesy of Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

A nuclear expert has warned that it might be 100 years before melting fuel rods can be safely removed from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant.

The warning came as levels of radioactive iodine flushed into the sea near the plant spiked to a new high and the Wall Street Journal said it had obtained disaster response blueprints which said the plant's operators were woefully unprepared for the scale of the disaster.

Water is still being poured into the damaged reactors to cool melting fuel rods.

But one expert says the radiation leaks will be ongoing and it could take 50 to 100 years before the nuclear fuel rods have completely cooled and been removed.

"As the water leaks out, you keep on pouring water in, so this leak will go on for ever," said Dr John Price, a former member of the Safety Policy Unit at the UK's National Nuclear Corporation.

"There has to be some way of dealing with it. The water is connecting in tunnels and concrete-lined pits at the moment and the question is whether they can pump it back.

"The final thing is that the reactors will have to be closed and the fuel removed, and that is 50 to 100 years away.

"It means that the workers and the site will have to be intensely controlled for a very long period of time."

But Laurence Williams, Professor of Nuclear Safety at England's University of Central Lancashire and the former head nuclear regulator for the UK, is relatively comfortable with the situation.

"I have been monitoring it for the last couple of weeks and [the] three reactors seem to be more or less unchanged from initially when they got into the seawater flowing into them," he said.

"We don't know exactly the state of the fuel in those reactors but looking at the data, the pressures and temperatures look fairly stable over the last couple of weeks.

"My view is that as there hasn't been any sort of major catastrophic release of radioactivity, if they can continue to get the fresh water into the reactors and cool them, the decay heat is now fairly stabilising.

"It will take some time before it disappears but so far, so good. But it will take some time to bring under control."

Both experts agree capping the damaged reactors with concrete is not an option.

Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal says it has obtained disaster-readiness plans which show the facility only had one satellite phone and a single stretcher in case of an accident.

The blueprints also provided no detail about the possibility of using firefighters from Tokyo or national troops - both of which have been part of the response to the Fukushima crisis - to deal with any disaster.

Levels of radioactive iodine-131 in the Pacific off the plant have been recorded at a new high of 4,385 times the legal limit.

In 2002, the plant's operator TEPCO admitted to falsifying safety reports, leading to all of its 17 boiling water reactors being shut down for inspection.

TEPCO has already vowed to dismantle the four reactors at the centre of the world's worst atomic accident in 25 years, but now Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan says the Fukushima plant must be scrapped.

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