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

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Fukushima’s ¥8 trillion cleanup leaves foreign firms in the cold — The Japan Times

” Cleaning up the Fukushima nuclear plant — a task predicted to cost 86 times the amount earmarked for decommissioning Japan’s first commercial reactor — is the mother of all salvage jobs. Still, foreign firms with decades of experience are seeing little of the spoils.

Safely dismantling the Japanese power plant, wrecked by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, will cost about ¥8 trillion ($70 billion), the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said on Dec. 9, quadrupling the previous estimate. While a contract to help clean up the facility would be a windfall for any firm with specialized technology, the lion’s share of the work has gone to local companies that designed and built most of Japan’s atomic infrastructure.

The bidding process for Fukushima contracts should be more open to foreigners, as Japan has never finished decommissioning a commercial nuclear plant, let alone one that experienced a triple meltdown, according to Lake Barrett, an independent adviser at Japan’s International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning. While the Fukushima cleanup is unlike any nuclear disaster in history, foreign firms that have experience decommissioning regular facilities could provide much-needed support, according to Barrett, and even the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc.

‘Cultural Resistance’

“Internationally, there is a lot more decontamination and decommissioning knowledge than you have in Japan,” Barrett, a former official at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an interview in Tokyo. “I hope the Japanese contracting system improves to get this job done safely. There is this cultural resistance — it is almost like there is an isolated nuclear village still.”

An opaque bidding process plays to the heart of criticisms put forward by independent investigators, who said in a 2012 report that collusion between the government, regulators and the plant’s operator contributed to the scale of the disaster.

Of 44 subsidized projects publicly awarded by the trade and economy ministry since 2014, about 80 percent went to the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning. The group, known as IRID, was established in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and is comprised entirely of Japanese corporations, according to the ministry’s website.

Japan’s trade and industry ministry awarded funds directly to only two foreign firms during the same period. Many of the contracts had only one or two bidders.

Of about 70 contracts awarded since the March 2011 disaster, nine have gone to foreign companies, according to an official in the ministry’s Agency of Natural Resources and Energy who asked not be named, citing internal policy.

To provide opportunities for foreign companies, the ministry has created an English website for bids and also provides English information sessions to explain the contracts, the official said.

Toshiba, Hitachi

IRID’s contracts are given to its members, including Toshiba Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which have partnerships and joint ventures with foreign firms, spokesman Yoshio Haruyama said by phone. While it doesn’t directly contract work to companies overseas, IRID taps foreign experts as advisers and participates in international collaborative projects, he said.

Mitsubishi Heavy has about five or six contracts through IRID, but can’t share how many partnerships it has with foreign firms, spokesman Shimon Ikeya said by phone. Hitachi has sub-contracts with foreign suppliers related to the Fukushima cleanup, but can’t provide details about these agreements because they aren’t public, a spokesperson said by email.

As of March, IRID had about ¥30 billion worth of ongoing contracts primarily related to research and development of fuel removal and waste treatment. IRID, which aims to “gather knowledge and ideas from around the world” for the purpose of nuclear decommissioning, doesn’t disclose how much of their money ultimately goes to foreign businesses, according to its spokesman. Barrett, its adviser, said he thinks it’s “very low,” but should ideally be 5 percent to 10 percent.

‘Nuclear Village’

Japan’s biggest nuclear disaster isn’t void of foreign technology. Toshiba, which owns Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse Electric Co., and Hitachi, which has a joint venture with General Electric Co., are tapping American expertise. A giant crane and pulley system supplied by Toshiba to remove spent fuel from the wrecked reactors employs technology developed by Westinghouse.

“We bring in knowledge from foreign companies, organizations and specialists in order to safely decommission the reactors,” Tatsuhiro Yamagishi, spokesman for Tepco, said by email. While the company can’t say the exact number of foreign firms involved in the Fukushima cleanup, companies including Paris-based Areva SA, California-based Kurion Inc. and Massachusetts-based Endeavor Robotics are engaged in work at the site, according to Yamagishi.

For foreign firms, however, independently securing contracts is still a tall order.

“When it comes to Japan’s nuclear industry, the bidding system is completely unclear,” Hiroaki Koide, a former assistant professor at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, said in an email. “The system is designed to strengthen the profits of Japan’s nuclear village,” he added, referring to the alliance of pro-nuclear politicians, bureaucrats and power companies that promote reactors.

Tepco’s annual cost to decommission its Fukushima plant may blow out to several hundred billion yen a year, up from the current estimate of ¥80 billion, the trade and industry ministry said in October. As of June, almost ¥1 trillion has been allocated for decommissioning and treating water at Fukushima, according to Tepco’s Yamagishi.

‘Ripe for Corruption’

With that much money at stake, Japan has become ground zero for a plethora of companies looking to benefit from the cleanup work. The structure of Japan’s nuclear industry and the closed procurement preferred by the utilities that operate atomic plants means that the most lucrative opportunities for foreign companies are in the area of subcontracting, according to a report by the EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation released in March.

“Foreign firms have long argued that the Japanese bidding process is one that is ripe for corruption due to a lack of openness and transparency,” Daniel Aldrich, professor and director of the security and resilience studies program at Northeastern University in Boston, said in an email. For nuclear decommissioning “there is even less clarity and transparency due to security and proliferation concerns,” he said.

Rigging Bids

The Japan Fair Trade Commission raided the offices of five companies last year in relation to rigged bids for maintenance contracts from Tepco, according to Jiji Press. Eleven road-paving companies were fined in September on projects to repair roads following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Jiji reported.

Andrew DeWit, a political economy professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, agrees that the contract-awarding process isn’t transparent. A lot of foreign companies seek Japanese partners to better their chances, he said.

Purolite Corp., a closely held water purifying company, spent millions of dollars developing and testing a system that could be used to treat radioactive water at Fukushima. Pennsylvania-based Purolite partnered with Hitachi to help win a contract to use its technology at the wrecked facility.

Those plans didn’t pan out. Purolite is suing Hitachi in New York and Tokyo, alleging that Hitachi is using its technology at Fukushima in breach of agreements made in 2011, shutting it out of more than $1 billion in contracts, according to court documents filed in September.

Hitachi doesn’t comment on ongoing legal matters, a spokesperson said by email.

“With a smaller pool of competitors, firms can expand their profit margins,” said Northeastern University’s Aldrich. “There are French and Russian firms that have the technical expertise to participate in nuclear decommissioning processes, but it is unclear if they will be able to compete on a level playing field with Japanese firms, which have far more experience with Japanese regulations and expectations.” ”

by Stephen Stapczynski, Bloomberg

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Three firms picked to help tackle toxic water at Fukushima No. 1 — The Japan Times

” The government picked three overseas companies Tuesday to participate in a subsidized project to determine the best available technology for separating radioactive tritium from the toxic water building up at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. is currently test-running a system it says is capable of removing 62 types of radioactive substances from the contaminated water, but not tritium.

Thus tritium-laced water is expected to accumulate at the plant in the absence of any method to remove the isotope.

The three firms chosen from 29 applicants are U.S. firm Kurion Inc., which offers technologies to treat nuclear and hazardous waste; GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy Canada Inc., a joint venture of Hitachi Ltd. and U.S. firm General Electric Co.; and Federal State Unitary Enterprise RosRAO, a Russian radioactive waste management firm.

The government will provide up to ¥1 billion for each examination of the technologies and running costs, and consider whether any of them can be applied to treat the water at Fukushima No. 1, the industry ministry said.

The three companies are to conclude their experiments by the end of March 2016, a ministry official said.

The official cautioned there is no guarantee that any of the technologies will be put to practical use. ”

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