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A probe used in Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s investigation picks up pebble-like nuclear fuel debris in the No. 2 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
Source: TEPCO

A robot arm successfully picked up pebble-sized pieces of radioactive fuel at the Fukushima nuclear plant in a complex operation seen as key to clean-up efforts after the 2011 meltdown, officials said Thursday.

Operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) on Wednesday sent down a remote-controlled probe to the melted fuel at the bottom of the plant’s reactor 2, one of three that melted down after a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

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It caught five small pieces of the fuel debris and lifted them up some five centimeters.

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“We were able to confirm that the fuel debris can be moved,” said Yuka Matsubara, a spokeswoman.

“We accomplished the objective of this test,” she said, adding the company plans to actually remove some fuel debris as a sample by March next year.

Robots have already peered inside the reactor to allow experts to assess the melted fuel visually, but Wednesday’s test was the first attempt to work out how fragile the highly radioactive material is.

Removing the melted fuel is considered the most difficult part of the massive clean-up operation.

It is not expected to begin until 2021, and TEPCO has other issues to resolve including how to dispose of large quantities of contaminated water stored in containers at the plant site.

The March 2011 tsunami that caused the meltdown was triggered by a massive undersea quake and killed around 18,000 people.

Tens of thousands were forced to evacuate their homes because of the threat of radiation.

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