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First reactor fuel rods removed from crippled Fukushima power plant

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Fukushima reactor cleanup hits milestone as robotic crane starts removing nuclear fuel rods; talk to Alberta voters and it's clear they have a lot of worries heading into tomorrow's provincial election.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on Sunday. Seen in the background is the building housing the plant's No. 2 reactor. (Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

TODAY:

  • Historic Notre Dame de Paris was engulfed in flames this morning. Follow the CBC's live coverage.
  • Workers at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant begin removing nuclear fuel from one of the damaged reactors.
  • It's clear Alberta voters have a lot of worries heading into tomorrow's provincial election.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Fukushima's long, long cleanup

Workers at Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant  have finally begun to remove nuclear fuel from one of its damaged reactors, more than eight years after the twin disasters of an earthquake and tsunami.

The facility's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), is using a robotic crane to carefully lift 566 used and unused fuel rod bundles from a storage pool in the No. 3 reactor building. Radiation levels remain so high, however, that the humans working the buttons must stay at least a half-kilometre away.

The work, which all takes place under water, will see the rods placed inside storage cases before their eventual removal, and is expected to take at least two years.

A Tokyo Electric Power Co. worker explains the fuel-removal operation at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Okuma, northeastern Japan, on Monday. Removing fuel from a cooling pool at one of three reactors that melted down in the 2011 disaster is a milestone in the decades-long process to decommission the plant. (Kyodo News via AP)

It is just the initial step in a very lengthy plan to decommission the three reactors that melted down when sea water flooded the site on March 11, 2011, knocking out emergency power and causing their cores to overheat.

The full cleanup is expected to take another 40 years.

And several major hurdles remain, like the removal of the melted fuel within the reactor cores. That too will be the job of robots, but at present none exist that could withstand such massive doses of radiation.

The news of the fuel-rod removal comes just five days after the lifting of an evacuation order for one of the two towns nearest the plant.

Residents in some parts of Okuma, in Fukushima Prefecture, are now permitted to return to their homes for the first time since the spring of 2011. The Japanese government has constructed a new town hall, and work is underway on 50 stores, public buildings and new housing units.

A woman walks with a dog near a monitor showing a radiation reading on April 6 in the Yonomori area of Fukushima, Japan. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

Yesterday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe  paid a visit to both the town and the plant to survey the progress, reaffirming his commitment to revive and revitalize the area just a few days after one of his minister's was turfed out of cabinet for joking about the politics of the cleanup.

The Olympic torch relay  will start in the shadow of the nuclear plant. And the city of Fukushima, located 60 km to the northeast, will host baseball and softball games during the Tokyo 2020 Games.

But rehabilitating the prefecture's image may prove as monumental a task as dealing with the damaged reactors.

For example, only 50 people have so far registered to return to Okuma, a town that was formerly home to 11,500. And even in communities farther from the plant, the disaster has changed local demographics, with the returning populace now overwhelmingly elderly and male.

And Japan's efforts to persuade the rest of the world that the danger has passed have been dealt a couple of recent blows.

An aerial view of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. South Korea said on April 12 that it will continue to block all fishery products from Fukushima and seven neighbouring prefectures to ensure 'only foods that are confirmed as safe are put on the table.' (Kyodo News via AP)

Tests of seawater samples from a remote Alaskan island in the Bering Strait have detected cesium-137, a by-product of nuclear fission. The trace amounts aren't enough to make anyone sick, but underline how the aftereffects of the disaster still linger far from its epicentre.

Then on Friday, the World Trade Organization upheld a South Korean import ban on seafood from the Fukushima area, overturning a prior ruling of unfair discrimination against Japanese products. (South Korea is among the 20 countries that still have post-disaster restrictions on Japanese fish and agricultural products.)

Concerns about the safety of the seas surrounding the damaged plant aren't likely to fade away anytime soon.

Storage tanks at the facility now contain almost one million tonnes of radiation-contaminated groundwater, and will soon reach their capacity.

Fukushima's reactor units one through four are seen over storage tanks of radiation-contaminated water on Jan. 23. (Kimimasa Mayama/EPA-EFE)

Japanese authorities have been floating a plan to dilute the water and release it into the ocean, over the objections of both environmentalists and the fishing industry.

But even if they were to do so, the problem won't be solved. Groundwater is still flowing into the damaged reactor buildings at a rate of more than 100 tonnes a day.

This despite the construction of a publicly funded $410 million Cdn wall of frozen earth around the three buildings.

In fact, the early indications are that the 1,500 brine-filled tubes that chill the surrounding dirt to -30 C  may have made things worse.


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Alberta decisions

It's clear Alberta voters have a lot of worries heading into tomorrow's provincial election, The National co-host Rosemary Barton writes from Calgary.

It's just a day now until Albertans head to the polls to cast their ballots, but many aren't waiting.

There was news over the weekend about the record number of advance voters, almost 700,000 — nearly tripling the number who voted early in the 2015 election.

United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney greets supporters during a campaign rally in Edmonton on Friday. (Codie McLachlan/Canadian Press)

A high voter turnout is something any journalist can get behind. And speaking of voters, when I got to town yesterday I met up with three Albertans for a chat over dinner.

CBC Alberta tried something new ahead of this vote. They put together a focus group of people and have been watching them throughout the election campaign as they come to a decision about who they'll cast their ballot for. We plucked three from the group to see if they've made up their minds.

James, Stephen and Tamara all say the divisive tone of the campaign has disappointed them, but they have carefully weighed positions and perspectives. Stephen and Tamara can tell us where they have landed. James is still trying to figure it out.

Calgary is always a battleground in an election, but more than that, Calgarians have backed the party that forms provincial government in every election since 1948. What happens in Calgary matters.

Talking to voters certainly helps us understand what the issues are and what people are worried about. And voters here have a lot of worries.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley makes her way through the crowd during an election rally in Edmonton on Sunday. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

All three of our Calgarians have links to the oil and gas sector and all three of them have anxiety about how things are going. So that will factor strongly into their decision on Tuesday.

But James, Stephen and Tamara did all seem to agree on one thing: that after Tuesday, Alberta is going to have to do a much better job of coming together to find answers to its problems.

It's an interesting conversation, and one worth watching to get a sense of things ahead of the vote. Check it out tonight on The National.

And we'll be here in Alberta for the next couple of days covering how the vote unfolds.

- Rosemary Barton


    NHL playoffs

    The National will be delayed on the CBC television network due to the NHL playoffs. The show will air at its usual time, 9 p.m. ET, on News Network and online.


    A few words on ... 

    Another bit of Masters history.


    Quote of the moment

    "I feel targeted by it because I can't be a police officer anymore, and they're just destroying my dreams like that."

    - Sukhman Singh Shergill, a Montreal teen whose ambition is to join the city police force, on Quebec's proposed Bill 21, which would ban public workers in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols, like his turban.

    Sukhman Singh Shergill has long envisioned becoming the first officer in the SPVM to wear a turban. (Dave St-Amand/CBC)

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    • Former VW boss charged over diesel emissions scandal (BBC)
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    • World's biggest plane takes flight (CBC)
    • Alleged grave robber tried to consume skeletal remains (The Telegram)
    • Rare giant bird kills Florida man (CNN)

    Today in history

    April 15, 1980: Wrestling's full-contact fans

    The sport may be fake, but wrestling fans take it awfully seriously. Dave McKigney, a.k.a. The Canadian Wildman, tells tales of irate members of the public slashing his tires, smashing his windshield, and even tipping over cars with wrestlers trapped inside. Danny Johnson has a story about an angry Joe leaping into the ring and pulling a gun. The most remarkable thing about this Heartland segment, however, might be the admission from host Sylvia Tyson that she is a lifelong grappling aficionado.

    Frenzied spectators trash cars, pull guns and hurl dentures. 8:07

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    About the Author

    Jonathon Gatehouse

    Jonathon Gatehouse

    Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.