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As the immediate threat from Fukushima Daiichi's damaged nuclear reactors recedes, engineers and scientists are facing up to a clean-up process that could last for many decades, or even a century.

Experts on previous nuclear accidents say that the sheer quantity of nuclear material that needs to be removed from the site, together with the extent of the damage, makes Fukushima a unique challenge. The plant's damaged reactors are home to just under 1,000 tonnes of nuclear fuel and thousands of tonnes of radioactive water (see graphic).

Last week, the Toshiba Corporation floated a rough proposal to clean up the site in a decade. But veterans of clean-up operations at sites such as Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania say that it will probably take much longer. The removal of the radioactive material will require a carefully planned and technologically sophisticated programme, made all the more challenging by the devastation left after partial core meltdowns and explosions.

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Category: Science