- Fukushima plant readies for dangerous fuel rod removal
- Stem cell fountain of youth
- First tidal energy generator launched
FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI NUCLEAR POWER PLANT, Japan, Nov 07, 2013 (AFP) - Nuclear engineers in Japan are readying to move uranium and plutonium fuel rods at Fukushima in their most difficult and dangerous task since the plant's runaway reactors were brought under control two years ago.
Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) will this month begin taking out fuel rods from a pool inside a reactor building at the tsunami-hit plant, in a technically challenging operation that will test the utility's abilities after months of setbacks and glitches.
Experts say the operation is a tricky but essential step in the decades-long decommissioning process after the worst atomic accident in a generation.
More than 1,500 nuclear fuel assemblies, the bulk of them used, but including 200 new ones, need to be pulled out of the pool where they were being stored when the tsunami smashed into Fukushima in March 2011.
Reactor No. 4 was not in operation at the time but hydrogen from Reactor No. 3 escaped into the building and exploded, tearing the roof off and leaving it at the mercy of natural hazards like earthquakes, storms or another tsunami.
TEPCO says it has not yet found any damage to the assemblies at No. 4, which contain an mixture of uranium and plutonium, but will be monitoring for abnormalities.
The removal of fuel is part of regular work at any nuclear power plant, but "conditions are different from normal because of the disaster," said company spokeswoman Mayumi Yoshida.
"It is crucial. It is a first big step towards decommissioning the reactors," she said. "Being fully aware of risks, we are determined to go ahead with operations cautiously and securely."
Chunks of debris that were sent flying into the pool as reactor buildings exploded have largely been removed and a crane has been installed. A protective hood has been erected over the building's skeleton in a bid to prevent radioactive leaks.
A remotely-controlled grabber will sink into the pool and hook onto a fuel assembly, which it will pull up and place inside a fully immersed cask.
The 4.5-metre (15-foot) bundles weighing 300 kilogramme (660 pounds) have to be kept in water throughout the operation to keep them cool, the spokeswoman said.
The 91-tonne cask will then be hauled from the pool - containing as many as 22 fuel assemblies and a lot of water - to be loaded onto a trailer and taken to a different storage pool where the operation will be reversed.
Experts warn that any slip-ups could quickly snowball and even minor mishaps will create considerable delays to the already long and complicated decommissioning.
"This is the first practical milestone for the project," said Hiroshi Miyano, a nuclear systems expert and visiting professor at Hosei University in Tokyo.
"Any trouble in this operation will considerably affect the timetable for the entire project," he said. "This is an operation TEPCO cannot afford to bungle."
Miyano's comments reflect an increasingly widespread view that the giant utility is not capable of dealing with the mess its nuclear plant has created.
Months of setbacks have included multiple leaks from tanks storing the water used to keep reactors cool, and a power outage caused when a rat electrocuted itself on a circuit board.
TEPCO's management of the problems has been criticised as haphazard and uncoordinated, with one government minister saying it was like watching someone playing "whack-a-mole".
The full decommissioning of Fukushima is likely to take decades and include tasks that have never been attempted anywhere in the world, such as the removal of reactor cores that have probably melted beyond recognition.
Meanwhile, villages and towns nearby remain largely empty, their residents unable or unwilling to return to live in the shadow of the leaking plant because of the fear of radiation.
MANILA: Cynthia Carrion-Norton flits high-heeled around the Philippine capital with energy levels belying her years, thankful for a controversial treatment she highly recommends to fellow sixty-somethings.
Carrion-Norton, 66, a member of the Philippine Olympic Committee and a former undersecretary for medical tourism, credits her vitality to adult stem cell therapy.
"The day I got the therapy I went to a dinner party and everyone told me: 'Cynthia, you're blooming!'," Carrion-Norton said.
The procedure involves harvesting the patient's stem cells from their own fat and injecting them into their blood, which she likened to being injected with intravenous fluid in the arm.
In a country where many elite are obsessed with anti-ageing, wealthy Filipinos are shelling out between US$12,500 (RM39,600) and US$18,000 (RM57,000) per session of stem cell therapy in the belief it will improve their overall health and make them look younger.
Rich businessmen and public officials – mostly male – are the most eager customers, according to Florencio Lucero, a doctor in Manila who said he started performing adult stem cell therapy in 2006.
"They do it because they want to work longer," Lucero said.
"And then they tell their wives or girlfriends."
Lucero said Filipinos had been receiving anti-ageing stem cell treatment since the 1970s, often flying abroad to do so.
Thai medical entrepreneur Bobby Kittichaiwong says he has a lucrative business catering to the Filipino elite, who pay US$20,000 (RM63,400) to visit his Villa Medica clinic in Germany for a more controversial form of stem cell therapy.
The clinic harvests cells from unborn sheep to be injected into a patient's muscles, known as fresh cell therapy, and Kittichaiwong said 400 Filipinos visited last year.
"After 14 days, the patient's skin will glow and their digestive and immune systems will improve," he said.
Among Villa Medica's high-profile clients is former president Joseph Estrada, 76, who has staged a remarkable political comeback in recent years after being forced to stand down from the nation's top job in 2001 because of corruption.
"Now I sleep better, my knees are no longer a problem, my skin has been radiant like this ever since," reads a testimonial from Estrada in a Villa Medica brochure.
A spokesman for Estrada, who was this year elected mayor of the nation's capital, confirmed he had stem cell therapy at Villa Medica.
Another remarkable, elderly politician who has cited stem cell therapy as one reason for his enduring career is 89-year-old Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, who was defence minister during the reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos a generation ago.
Villa Medica also cites Enrile as one of its patients.
However the use of stem cells from sheep has attracted much criticism, with Samuel Bernal, a professor of medicine at the University of California, among the many Filipino doctors to warn of its dangers.
"When animal cells are transmitted to humans, it could be fatal," Bernal said at a recent forum on stem cell therapy in Manila.
Kittichaiwong insists fresh cell therapy is perfectly safe.
"What you eat every day is foreign material, but you don't get rejection," he said, adding that Villa Medica planned to open a clinic in the Philippines soon. — AFP
Singapore has taken its first steps toward potentially another viable source of renewable energy, with its first tidal turbine system sited just off Sentosa.
The 1kW testbed, the first such light, low-flow system in the tropics, was designed and constructed by Nanyang Technological University's Energy Research Institute.
Tidal energy has conventionally only been generated in temperate regions such as Britain and the United States, where tidal flows are more powerful. It is generally considered a more predictable energy source than solar or wind.
The research institute has plans to test more tidal turbines in Singapore's southern waters within the coming three to five years. — The Straits Times/ Asia News Network
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