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Tokyo Electric Power Co. plans this month to begin removing spent fuel from the wrecked Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear facility, the most significant test to date of its ability to contain the threat stemming from the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

An uncontrolled nuclear reaction due to structural failures or mishandled fuel is highly unlikely because of safeguards and workers’ experience with the procedure, Akira Ono, the Dai-Ichi plant’s chief supervisor, said at a news conference at the power station yesterday.

Ono’s remarks coincide with preparations to remove fuel rods from the No. 4 reactor’s cooling pool at the plant operated by Tepco, as the utility is known. The task is an early milestone in decommissioning that experts say could threaten another crisis if mishandled. Were the rods to break or overheat, it could prompt a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction similar to the meltdowns at three Fukushima reactors following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“I personally believe this kind of thing is very close to being impossible,” Ono said. “It’s not the first time for us to do this operation. At any ordinary nuclear power plant, workers remove spent fuel.”

Still, working amid high radiation emitted by other reactors with melted cores and dealing with possible debris remaining in the pool could present problems, Ono said.

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