Fukushima’a other big problem: A Million tons of radioactive water — Wired

” The tsunami-driven seawater that engulfed Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has long since receded. But plant officials are still struggling to cope with another dangerous flood: the enormous amounts of radioactive water the crippled facility generates each day. More than 1 million tons of radiation-laced water is already being kept on-site in an ever-expanding forest of hundreds of hulking steel tanks—and so far, there’s no plan to deal with them.

The earthquake and tsunami that hammered Fukushima on March 11, 2011 triggered meltdowns in three of its six reactors. That left messes of intensely radioactive fuel somewhere loose in the reactor buildings—though no one knows exactly where. What is known, however, is that every day, as much as much as 150 tons of groundwater percolates into the reactors through cracks in their foundations, becoming contaminated with radioactive isotopes in the process.

To keep that water from leaking into the ground or the Pacific, Tepco, the giant utility that owns the plant, pumps it out and runs it through a massive filtering system housed in a building the size of a small aircraft hangar. Inside are arrays of seven-foot tall stainless steel tubes, filled with sand grain-like particles that perform a process called ion exchange. The particles grab on to ions of cesium, strontium, and other dangerous isotopes in the water, making room for them by spitting out sodium. The highly toxic sludge created as a byproduct is stored elsewhere on the site in thousands of sealed canisters.

This technology has improved since the catastrophe. The first filtering systems, installed just weeks after the disaster by California-based Kurion Inc. (which has since been bought by Veolia, a French resource management company), only caught cesium, a strong gamma radiation emitter that makes it the most dangerous of the isotopes in the water. The tubes in those arrays were filled with highly modified grains of naturally occurring volcanic minerals called zeolites. By 2013, the company developed entirely artificial particles—a form of titano silicate—that also grab strontium.

The filters, however, don’t catch tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. That’s a much trickier task. Cesium and strontium atoms go into solution with the water, like sugar in tea; but tritium can bond with oxygen just like regular hydrogen, rendering the water molecules themselves radioactive. “It’s one thing to separate cesium from water, but how do you separate water from water?” asks John Raymont, Kurion’s founder and now president of Veolia’s nuclear solutions group. The company claims to have developed a system that can do the job, but Tepco has so far balked at the multi-billion dollar cost.

So for now, the tritiated water is pumped into a steadily growing collection of tanks. There are already hundreds of them, and Tepco has to start building a new one every four days.

Tepco has at least reduced the water’s inflow. As much as 400 tons per day was gushing in just a couple of years ago. In an effort to keep the groundwater from getting in, Tepco has built a network of pumps, and in 2016 installed an underground “ice wall”—a $300 million subterranean fence of 30-yard-long rods through which tons of sub-zero brine is pumped, freezing the surrounding earth. All of which helps, but hasn’t solved the problem.

Tritium is far less dangerous than cesium—it emits a weaker, lower-energy form of radiation. Still, all that tritiated water can’t just be stored indefinitely. “Some of those tanks and pipes will eventually fail. It’s inevitable,” says Dale Klein, a former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission who has been consulting with Tepco since the early days following the disaster. (In fact, hundreds of tons of water leaked out of the tanks in 2013 and 2014, sparking an international outcry. Tepco has since improved their design.)

Klein, among others, believes that the concentrations of tritium are low enough that the water can safely be released into the sea. “They should dilute and dispose of it,” he says. “It would be better to have a controlled release than an accidental one.”

But the notion of dumping tons of radioactive water into the ocean is understandably a tough sell. Whatever faith the Japanese public had left in Tepco took a further beating in the first couple of years after the meltdowns, when several investigations forced the company to acknowledge they had underreported the amount of radiation released during and after the disaster. Japan’s fishing industry raises a ruckus whenever the idea of dumping the tritiated water is broached; they already have to contend with import restrictions imposed by neighboring countries worried about eating contaminated fish. Japan’s neighbors including China, Korea, and Taiwan have also objected.

For now, all Tepco can do is keep building tanks, and hope that someone comes up with a solution before they run out of room—or the next earthquake hits. “

by Vince Beiser, Wired

source with internal links and photo


Fukushima nuclear plant: Tsunami wall could have avoided disaster but boss scrapped the plan, employee testifies — Newsweek

” A worker for the plant involved the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster said in a Japanese court Wednesday that his former boss was warned that a massive tsunami could strike the site, but delayed measures to build a protective wall to prevent it.

An unnamed employee of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that owns the ruined Fukushima Daiichi or No.1, Nuclear Power Plant testified during a trial this week that a 2008 safety test showed an earthquake could cause a tsunami as high as 52 feet capable of pounding the coastal facility, according to The Asahi Shimbun. The company was initially set to build a seawall, but the employee told the court that former TEPCO Vice President Sakae Muto suddenly dismissed the idea.

The potentially catastrophic scenario was brought up again during a meeting on March 7, 2011, compelling shocked regulators to again recommend a wall to shield the facility, The Japan Times reported. But it was too late already: A magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck only four days later on March 11, 2011, leaving up to 18,500 people dead or missing and destroying the facility.

Three out of the six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima No.1 plant suffered devastating meltdowns. Muto, along with former TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and former TEPCO Vice President Ichiro Takekuro were indicted in February 2016 and are facing trial for suspected professional negligence resulting in death or injury after the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl incident in 1986.

The multi-billion dollar effort to recover the site is far past schedule and over budget, but the TEPCO has claimed some recent successes. Six years after the disaster, the melted nuclear fuel was finally founded at the bottom of the partially submerged reactors. The site was so radioactive, even the robots previously sent it could not traverse the deadly core.

Efforts to retrieve the fuel, however, have been hampered as the $324 million ice wall that penetrated 100 feet into the earth failed to stop groundwater from leaking into the site, as Reuters reported last month. In fact, the amount of groundwater seeping into the facility may have increased since the highly-anticipated ice wall was installed last August, amounting to the latest setback in a cleanup process already beset by seemingly endless complications and miscalculations.

Removing this water adds to an already growing storage crisis on the site. TEPCO deliberately added water to cool off the plant’s damaged reactors. After coming in contact with the plant, the coolant water and groundwater became tainted with a substance known as tritium, a byproduct of the nuclear process notoriously difficult to filter out of water. TEPCO has accumulated over 1 million tons of this tritium-laced water in 650 giant tanks, according to The Japan Times, and is urging the government to let the company begin dumping it into the ocean.

Some locals have protested this, however. While tritium was a natural byproduct of the nuclear process that experts have described as harmless in smaller doses and was dumped into oceans worldwide, Fukushima activists and fishermen have argued that dumping tritium, even in small quantities, would further hurt the reputation of the region, still synonymous with nuclear disaster. Nearby China and South Korea are among the nations that still restrict the import of certain products from Japan.

Lingering concerns about radiation have also reportedly kept many of the 160,000 residents that fled Fukushima from returning. Life, nevertheless, has begun to return to some parts of the crisis-stricken prefecture. The town of Okuma announced Wednesday that some citizens would be allowed to stay overnight starting next week for the first time since the March 2011 disaster, Japanese daily The Mainichi Shimbun said. ”

by Tom O’Connor, Newsweek

source with image and internal links

Is Fukushima doomed to become a dumping ground for toxic waste? — The Guardian

” This month, seven years after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdowns and explosions that blanketed hundreds of square kilometres of northeastern Japan with radioactive debris, government officials and politicians spoke in hopeful terms about Fukushima’s prosperous future. Nevertheless, perhaps the single most important element of Fukushima’s future remains unspoken: the exclusion zone seems destined to host a repository for Japan’s most hazardous nuclear waste.

No Japanese government official will admit this, at least not publicly. A secure repository for nuclear waste has remained a long-elusive goal on the archipelago. But, given that Japan possesses approximately 17,000 tonnes of spent fuel from nuclear power operations, such a development is vital. Most spent fuel rods are still stored precariously above ground, in pools, in a highly earthquake-prone nation.

Japanese officialdom relentlessly emphasises positive messages regarding Fukushima’s short- and medium-term future, prioritizing economic development and the gradual return of skeptical evacuees to their newly “remediated” communities. Yet the return rate for the least hard-hit communities is only about 15%. Government proclamations regarding revitalisation of the area in and around the exclusion zone intone about jobs but seem geared ominously toward a future with relatively few humans.

The Fukushima prefecture government is currently promoting a plan, dubbed The Innovation Coast, that would transform the unwelcoming region into a thriving sweep of high-tech innovation. Much of the development would be directed towards a “robot-related industrial cluster” and experimental zones like a robot test field.

The test field would develop robots tailored for disaster response and for other purposes on a course simulating a wide range of hurdles and challenges already well represented in Fukushima itself. Large water tanks would contain an array of underwater hazards to navigate, mirroring the wreckage-strewn waters beneath the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where a number of meltdown-remediating underwater robots have met a premature demise in recent years.

Elsewhere on the robot test field, dilapidated buildings and other ruins would serve as a proving ground for land-based disaster-response robots, which must navigate twisted steel rods, broken concrete and other rubble. Engineered runways and surrounding radiation-hit areas would serve as prime territory for testing parlous aerial drones for a range of purposes in various weather conditions – which would be difficult or impossible to achieve elsewhere in relatively densely populated Japan.

The planned site for the test field would link with a secluded test area about 13km south along the coast to coordinate test flights over the exclusion zone’s more or less posthuman terrain.

Naturally, unlike Fukushima’s human residents, robots would be oblivious to the elevated radiation levels found outside the Fukushima Daiichi facility. In addition, prefectural officials have suggested that the exclusion zone environs could play host to a range of other services that don’t require much human intervention, such as long-term archive facilities.

Proud long-time residents of Fukushima, for their part, see all this development as a continued “colonisation” of the home prefecture by Tokyo – a well-worn pattern of outsiders using the zone for their own purposes, as were the utility representatives and officials who built the ill-fated plant in the first place.

Years of colossal decontamination measures have scraped irradiated material from seemingly every forest, park, farm, roadside, and school ground. This 16 million cubic metres of radioactive soil is now stored in provisional sites in and around the exclusion zone, waiting to be moved to an interim storage facility that has hardly been started and for which nearly half of the land has not yet even been leased.

The state has promised to remove all the contaminated soil from Fukushima after 30 years, and government officials have been scrupulous in insisting that this will be the case – for soil. Yet in a nation with about 17,000 tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel rods and no willing candidates for secure repositories, it is only a matter of time before it becomes possible for politicians to publicly back the idea of transforming the area around Fukushima Daiichi into a secure repository.

Government officials, including those tasked with nuclear waste storage, describe the quintessentially Japanese strategy of saki-okuri, or calculated postponement, in the context of nuclear waste storage. Such perception management is a subtle business, but by quietly and unrelentingly pushing back the day of reckoning – slowly changing the terms of debate – the broadly distasteful prospect of storing Japan’s most dangerous material in its most tragically maltreated region would become gradually less intolerable to Japanese sensibilities.

The expanse of Fukushima in and around the exclusion zone represents an already contaminated area with, since 2011, far fewer residents to protest against such plans. Such a rare opportunity for relatively unopposed intervention in a struggling area will surely prove irresistible to the nuclear lobby.

Fukushima has been marginalised, disenfranchised, and outmanoeuvred for decades. After all, the electricity from Fukushima Daiichi went straight to the capital, not to Fukushima itself, which bore the risks. Since 2011, Fukushima has been saddled with the staggering burden of the meltdown’s aftermath that, despite government PR, will encumber and stigmatise its citizens for at least several decades. ”

by Peter Wynn Kirby, The Guardian


Clearing the radioactive rubble heap that was Fukushima Daiichi, 7 years on — Scientific American

” Seven years after one of the largest earthquakes on record unleashed a massive tsunami and triggered a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, officials say they are at last getting a handle on the mammoth task of cleaning the site before it is ultimately dismantled. But the process is still expected to be a long, expensive slog, requiring as-yet untried feats of engineering—and not all the details have yet been worked out.

When the disaster knocked out off- and on-site power supplies on March 11, 2011, three of the cooling systems for the plant’s four reactor units were disabled. This caused the nuclear fuel inside to overheat, leading to a meltdown and hydrogen explosions that spewed out radiation. The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), responded by cooling the reactors with water, which continues today. Meanwhile thousands of people living in the surrounding area were evacuated and Japan’s other nuclear plants were temporarily shut down.

In the years since the disaster and the immediate effort to stanch the release of radioactive material, officials have been working out how to decontaminate the site without unleashing more radiation into the environment. It will take a complex engineering effort to deal with thousands of fuel rods, along with the mangled debris of the reactors and the water used to cool them. Despite setbacks, that effort is now moving forward in earnest, officials say. “We are still conducting studies on the location of the molten fuel, but despite this we have made the judgment that the units are stable,” says Naohiro Masuda, TEPCO’s chief decommissioning officer for Daiichi.

Completely cleaning up and taking apart the plant could take a generation or more, and comes with a hefty price tag. In 2016 the government increased its cost estimate to about $75.7 billion, part of the overall Fukushima disaster price tag of $202.5 billion. The Japan Center for Economic Research, a private think tank, said the cleanup costs could mount to some $470 billion to $660 billion, however.

Under a government roadmap, TEPCO hopes to finish the job in 30 to 40 years. But some experts say even that could be an underestimate. “In general, estimates of work involving decontamination and disposal of nuclear materials are underestimated by decades,” says Rod Ewing, a professor of nuclear security and geological sciences at Stanford University. “I think that we have to expect that the job will extend beyond the estimated time.”

The considerable time and expense are due to the cleanup being a veritable hydra that involves unprecedented engineering. TEPCO and its many contractors will be focusing on several battlefronts.

Water is being deliberately circulated through each reactor every day to cool the fuel within—but the plant lies on a slope, and water from precipitation keeps flowing into the buildings as well. Workers built an elaborate scrubbing system that removes cesium, strontium and dozens of other radioactive particles from the water; some of it is recirculated into the reactors, and some goes into row upon row of giant tanks at the site. There’s about one million tons of water kept in 1,000 tanks and the volume grows by 100 tons a day, down from 400 tons four years ago.

To keep more water from seeping into the ground and being tainted, more than 90 percent of the site has been paved. A series of drains and underground barriers—including a $325-million* supposedly impermeable “wall” of frozen soil—was also constructed to keep water from flowing into the reactors and the ocean. These have not worked as well as expected, though, especially during typhoons when precipitation spikes, so groundwater continues to be contaminated.

Despite the fact contaminated water was dumped into the sea after the disaster, studies by Japanese and foreign labs have shown radioactive cesium in fish caught in the region has fallen and is now within Japan’s food safety limits. TEPCO will not say when it will decide what to do with all the stored water, because dumping it in the ocean again would invite censure at home and abroad—but there are worries that another powerful quake could cause it to slosh out of the tanks.

Fuel Mop-up

A second major issue at Fukushima is how to handle the fuel¾the melted uranium cores as well as spent and unused fuel rods stored at the reactors. Using robotic probes and 3-D imaging with muons (a type of subatomic particle), workers have found pebbly deposits and debris at various areas inside the primary containment vessels in the three of the plant’s reactor units. These highly radioactive remains are thought to be melted fuel as well as supporting structures. TEPCO has not yet worked out how it can remove the remains, but it wants to start the job in 2021. There are few precedents for the task. Lake Barrett—director of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant during its decommissioning after a partial meltdown at the Middletown, Pa., facility in 1979—says TEPCO will use robots to remotely dig out the melted fuel and store it in canisters on-site before shipping to its final disposal spot. “This is similar to what we did at Three Mile Island, just much larger and with much more sophisticated engineering because their damage is greater than ours was,” Barrett says. “So although the work is technically much more challenging than ours was, Japan has excellent technological capabilities, and worldwide robotic technology has advanced tremendously in the last 30-plus years.”

Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany, doubts the ambitious cleanup effort can be completed in the time cited, and questions whether the radioactivity can be completely contained. Until TEPCO can verify the conditions of the molten fuel, he says, “there can be no confirmation of what impact and damage the material has had” on the various components of the reactors—and therefore how radiation might leak into the environment in the future.

Although the utility managed to safely remove all 1,533 fuel bundles from the plant’s unit No. 4 reactor by December 2014, it still has to do the same for the hundreds of rods stored at the other three units. This involves clearing rubble, installing shields, dismantling the building roofs, and setting up platforms and special rooftop equipment to remove the rods. Last month a 55-ton dome roof was installed on unit No. 3 to facilitate the safe removal of the 533 fuel bundles that remain in a storage pool there. Whereas removal should begin at No. 3 sometime before April 2019, the fuel at units No. 1 and 2 will not be ready for transfer before 2023, according to TEPCO. And just where all the fuel and other radioactive solid debris on the site will be stored or disposed of long-term has yet to be decided; last month the site’s ninth solid waste storage building, with a capacity of about 61,000 cubic meters, went into operation.

As for what the site itself might look like decades from now, cleanup officials refuse to say. But they are quick to differentiate it from the sarcophagus-style containment of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe in the Soviet Union, in what is now Ukraine. Whereas the Chernobyl plant is sealed off and the surrounding area remains off-limits except for brief visits—leaving behind several ghost towns—Japanese officials want as many areas as possible around the Daiichi site to eventually be habitable again.

“To accelerate reconstruction and rebuilding of Fukushima as a region, and the lives of locals, the key is to reduce the mid- and long-term risk,” says Satoru Toyomoto, director for international issues at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Nuclear Accident Response Office. “In that regard, keeping debris on the premises without approval is not an option.” ”

by Tim Hornyak, Scientific American


Experts: Fukushima must do more to reduce radioactive water — U.S. News

Here is a good article written by Mari Yamaguchi that explains the state of contaminated water at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Experts say that the ice wall that was built to keep groundwater from coming into the power plant and becoming contaminated with radioactivity is only half effective. A conventional drainage system also collects water from wells dug around the plant and pumps it out before it becomes contaminated. This water is stored in about 1,000 storage tanks near the facility. Read more about the construction, operation and maintenance costs that are coming out of the taxpayer’s pocket.


Media reports de-romanticize the cleanup work on the Fukushima nuclear power plant — The Japan Times

” Most of the reliable reporting about the clean-up of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant since it suffered three meltdowns in March 2011 has been from on-site workers. Even when articles appear in major media outlets about the situation at the crippled reactor, it’s usually presented through the anonymous or pseudonymous firsthand experiences of the men on the front lines.

Some have become famous. The public would not know much about the situation without Kazuto Tatsuta’s manga series, “Ichiefu” (or “1F” — shorthand for “Fukushima No. 1”), the writings of former letter carrier and cleanup worker Minoru Ikeda, or the books and tweets of a man known as “Happy” who has been working as an employee at the plant.

Because these individuals directly address what they and their colleagues have gone through on a daily basis, the work they do has been de-romanticized. It’s not as heroic as initial foreign media reports made it out to be. If anything, it’s tedious and uncomplicated.

Workers are concerned about those matters that all blue-collar laborers worry about — pay and benefits — which isn’t to suggest they don’t think about the possible health risks of radiation exposure. Last October, Ikeda talked to the comedy duo-cum-nuclear power reporters Oshidori Mako & Ken on the web channel Jiyu-na Radio about potential false reports on radiation levels around Fukushima, although also touching on health issues that have not been reported by the mainstream media. His main point was that serious illnesses may not manifest themselves until years after workers quit the site and thus no longer qualify for worker’s compensation. In other words, the workers understand the risk. They just want to be fairly compensated for it.

In that regard, one of the most common gripes from on-site reporters is the “hazard compensation” (kiken teate) workers are supposed to receive. Recently, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (Tepco), which is both responsible for the accident and in charge of the cleanup, announced a reduction in outlay associated with the hazard compensation, which is paid as a supplement to wages. This compensation can add as much as ¥20,000 a day to a worker’s pay, but now that Tepco says radiation levels have dropped, they will no longer provide the compensation, or, at least, not as much as they have been paying.

A special report in the Jan. 22 Tokyo Shimbun attempted to explain how this change will affect workers and the work itself. In March 2016, Tepco divided the work area into three zones: red, for high radiation levels; yellow, for some radioactivity; and green, for areas that had no appreciable radioactivity. Workers interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun say they’ve never liked this system because they feel it “has no meaning.” Rubble from the red zone is routinely transferred to the green zone, where heavy machinery kicks up a lot of dust, so there’s no physical delineation between zones when it comes to radiation levels. On the ground, this reality is addressed by subcontractors who make their employees in the green zone — which constitutes 95 percent of the work site — wear extra protective gear, even though Tepco doesn’t require it.

But the workers’ main gripe about the zone system is that most of them ended up being paid less and, as on-site workers have often explained, they weren’t getting paid as much as people thought they were. Contractors advertise high wages to attract workers, but then subtract things like room and board, utility fees, clothing and equipment. And it’s been known for years that the hazard compensation was more or less a racket gamed by the contractors standing between Tepco, which distributes the compensation, and the workers, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries. There can be up to six layers of contractors between Tepco and a worker, and each layer may take a cut of the compensation. In 2014, four workers sued Tepco for ¥62 million, saying they worked at the site but received none of the promised hazard compensation.

That situation still seems to be in play, according to Tokyo Shimbun. Several subcontractors told the newspaper they receive the compensation for their workers not from Tepco directly but from the contractor that hired them, and in most cases the compensation has been reduced, sometimes by more than half. One subcontractor said that a company above them actually apologized for the paucity of the compensation they were handing down because their “revenues had decreased.” The man known as Happy told Tokyo Shimbun that Tepco is ordering less work at the site, which means existing subcontractors may cut wages in order to compete for these dwindling jobs. Some contractors have even invested in the robots that are used to inspect the reactor, because they want the work to continue without interruption.

It was common practice to rotate out workers toiling in the highly radioactive areas regularly and quickly and then re-assign them to low-radiation areas. After some time they may have been rotated back into the high-radiation area, where pay is more. The man known as Happy says this sort of system now seems to be on the way out, and that makes sense if radiation is actually decreasing. However, he’s afraid that if there is another emergency that requires a sudden influx of workers, they won’t be available.

Tepco is obviously thinking of its bottom line, and the man known as Happy thinks the work should be managed by the government, which is contributing tax money to the cleanup. However, it seems only the Japan Communist Party is reading the dispatches from the plant. Last May, Japanese Communist Party lawmaker Taku Yamazoe questioned Tepco President Naomi Hirose about the hazard compensation in the Diet, and why the structure of payments to workers wasn’t clear.

Hirose said that while his company intends that the money goes to workers, he cannot say for sure that is the case because of the circumstances surrounding Tepco’s relationships with contractors. With work on the wane, it seems unlikely that those workers will see any of the money that’s owed to them, retroactively or otherwise. ”

by Philip Brasor, The Japan Times

source with internal links