Speaking Monday via a video comment released on the Tepco's website, the utility's president, Naomi Hirose, said: "Today, we reached an important milestone in our work at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. I am pleased to report to you the extraction of fuels from the Unit 4 spent-fuel pool has started on time and progressed safely."
The outcome of the first step, removing fuel from the cooling pool high up in the damaged No. 4 reactor building, is likely to affect the next process, retrieving the fuel from the pools for reactors 1, 2 and 3, as well as the melted fuel inside the damaged cores, Kyodo News reports.
Of the approximate 1,500 assemblies of nuclear fuel to be removed from the No. 4 reactor building, 1,331 are considered to be highly-radioactive spent fuel. The remaining assemblies were unused.
"It is quite certain that various kinds of troubles will occur, but I don't think Tepco has prepared enough safety measures," Kyodo quoted Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, a group against nuclear power, as saying.
While the overall decommissioning of the plant -- struck by an earthquake and tsunami March 11, 2011 -- is expected to take around 40 years, Tepco said, it expects the removal of all nuclear fuel from the No. 4 reactor building to be completed by the end of next year.
Meantime, Tepco continues to grapple with the ongoing problem of managing the massive amount of radioactive water accumulating at the plant. Although the utility has set up some 1,000 tanks to store the toxic water, the substance continues to accumulate at a rate of about 400 tons a day.
"What has started at the No. 4 unit is actually just one risky and delicate part of the complicated, multifaceted challenge of cleaning up the mess at the Fukushima No. 1 plant," Japan's Asahi Shimbun said in an editorial Tuesday.
Even the first stage of the operation "will not dramatically change anything," the newspaper said, noting that underground water continues to flood the crippled No. 1 to No. 3 reactors, making it reactive.
The editorial called for transparency in reporting on the decommissioning of Fukushima.
"The electric power industry and the government must not attempt to delude the public by stressing progress in just one aspect of the huge challenge that lies ahead. They must make utmost efforts to explain the overall picture. There is no room for even the slightest exaggeration," it stated.