*Fukushima mothers at UN tell their story — Beyond Nuclear International

” When Kazumi Kusano stood in the CRIIRAD radiological laboratory in Valence, France listening to lab director, Bruno Chareyron, describe just how radioactive the soil sample taken from a school playground back home in Japan really was, she could not fight back the tears.

“This qualifies as radioactive waste,” Chareyron told them. “The children are playing in a school playground that is very contaminated. The lowest reading is 300,000 bequerels per square meter. That is an extremely high level.” (CRIIRAD is the Commission for Independent Research and Information about Radiation, an independent research laboratory and NGO).

Kazumi, a Japanese mother and Fukushima evacuee who prefers not to use her real name, was in France with two other mothers, Mami Kurumada and Akiko Morimatsu — all of whom also brought their children — as part of an educational speaking tour. Morimatsu was also invited to testify before the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, to launch an appeal for the rights of nuclear refugees.

In Japan, seven years since the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster began to unfold, the government is requiring some refugees to return to the region. Says Chareyron, whose lab has worked extensively in the Fukushima zone, “the Japanese government is doing everything to force citizens to return to lands where the radiation doses that citizens and children should be subjected to are largely over the typically acceptable norms.”

“People in Japan still don’t believe that the effects they are feeling are due to radiation,” said Kusano during one of the tour stops in France. Indeed, when they took samples in their neighborhoods to be analyzed for radioactive contamination, they were mocked not only by their neighbors but by government officials.

“We don’t take this seriously in Japan,” said Kurumada, who expressed relief to be among those who understand the true dangers, like Chareyron and the French anti-nuclear activists with whom they met. “In our country, it’s taboo to talk about radiation and contamination.”

Both Kusano and Kurumada are among those who have brought lawsuits against Tepco and the Japanese government, seeking compensation for Fukushima evacuees. Several of these have already ruled in favor of the evacuees and have assigned responsibility for the accident to Tepco and the government while providing financial awards to the plaintiffs. (Kusano’s son’s testimony helped win one of those cases — see our earlier coverage.)

The Japanese government pressured evacuees to return to areas contaminated by the Fukushima disaster by withdrawing their government financial assistance. However, many in areas that were not obligatory evacuation zones also left the region, given the high levels of radioactive contamination.

In addition to the visit to CRIIRAD, the mothers also spoke at public meetings in Lyon, Grenoble and Valence where CRIIRAD is located. The short news video below, in French, captures their visit to the lab.

At the UN in Geneva, Morimatsu’s testimony was postponed several days by a workforce strike. But eventually, Morimatsu (pictured with her son above the headline) was able to deliver her speech. She said:

“My name is Akiko Morimatsu. I am here with other evacuees and mothers, together with Greenpeace. I evacuated from the Fukushima disaster with my two children in May 2011. Shortly after the nuclear accident, radiation contamination spread. We were repeatedly and unnecessarily exposed to unannounced radiation.

“The air, water and soil became severely contaminated. I had no choice but to drink the contaminated water, to breast-feed my baby. To enjoy health, free from radiation exposure, is a fundamental principle. The Japanese Constitution states, ‘We recognize that all peoples of the world have the right to live in peace, free from fear and want.’

“However, the Japanese government has implemented almost no policies to protect its citizens. Furthermore, the government is focusing on a policy to force people to return to highly contaminated areas.

“I call on the Japanese government to immediately, fully adopt and implement the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council. I thank UN member states for defending the rights of residents in Japan. Please help us protect people in Fukushima, and in East Japan, especially vulnerable children, from further radiation exposure.”

Earlier that month, the Japanese government had responded to its Universal Periodic Review, by stating that it “supports” 145 recommendations and “notes” 72. One of those recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council, and which Japan “accepted”, was the paragraph that states: “Respect the rights of persons living in the area of Fukushima, in particular of pregnant women and children, to the highest level of physical and mental health, notably by restoring the allowable dose of radiation to the 1 mSv/year limit, and by a continuing support to the evacuees and residents (Germany);”

According to Hajime Matsukubo of Citizens Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo, while the Upper House of the Japanese Diet has indicated its willingness to decrease annual radiation exposures from 20 mSv, the Japanese government has only said it would “follow up” on the specific UN recommendation and report back later. There is no timeframe for such a change, hardly surprising since it would presumably mean once more evacuating people the government has already pressured to return to contaminated areas. The practical implications of this happening leave it very much in doubt.

However, Matsukubo believes that even the commitment to follow up “is a strong tool for us to push the government forward.” Aileen Mioko Smith of Kyoto-based Green Action agrees. “Now we have terrific leverage,” she said. Her group, along with Greenpeace Japan will be looking to “keep the Japanese government’s feet to the fire on this.”

by Linda Pentz Gunter, with contributions from Kurumi Sugita and Akiko Morimatsu, Beyond Nuclear International

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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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Move over Chernobyl, Fukushima is now officially the worst nuclear power disaster in history — CounterPunch

” The radiation dispersed into the environment by the three reactor meltdowns at Fukushima-Daiichi in Japan has exceeded that of the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, so we may stop calling it the “second worst” nuclear power disaster in history. Total atmospheric releases from Fukushima are estimated to be between 5.6 and 8.1 times that of Chernobyl, according to the 2013 World Nuclear Industry Status Report. Professor Komei Hosokawa, who wrote the report’s Fukushima section, told London’s Channel 4 News then, “Almost every day new things happen, and there is no sign that they will control the situation in the next few months or years.”

Tokyo Electric Power Co. has estimated that about 900 peta-becquerels have spewed from Fukushima, and the updated 2016 TORCH Report estimates that Chernobyl dispersed 110 peta-becquerels. (A Becquerel is one atomic disintegration per second. The “peta-becquerel” is a quadrillion, or a thousand trillion Becquerels.)

Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 in Ukraine suffered several explosions, blew apart and burned for 40 days, sending clouds of radioactive materials high into the atmosphere, and spreading fallout across the whole of the Northern Hemisphere — depositing cesium-137 in Minnesota’s milk.

The likelihood of similar or worse reactor disasters was estimated by James Asselstine of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who testified to Congress in 1986: “We can expect to see a core meltdown accident within the next 20 years, and it … could result in off-site releases of radiation … as large as or larger than the releases … at Chernobyl. Fukushima-Daiichi came 25 years later.

Contamination of soil, vegetation and water is so widespread in Japan that evacuating all the at-risk populations could collapse the economy, much as Chernobyl did to the former Soviet Union. For this reason, the Japanese government standard for decontaminating soil there is far less stringent than the standard used in Ukraine after Chernobyl.

Fukushima’s Cesium-137 Release Tops Chernobyl’s

The Korea Atomic Energy Research (KAER) Institute outside of Seoul reported in July 2014 that Fukushima-Daiichi’s three reactor meltdowns may have emitted two to four times as much cesium-137 as the reactor catastrophe at Chernobyl.

To determine its estimate of the cesium-137 that was released into the environment from Fukushima, the Cesium-137 release fraction (4% to the atmosphere, 16% to the ocean) was multiplied by the cesium-137 inventory in the uranium fuel inside the three melted reactors (760 to 820 quadrillion Becquerel, or Bq), with these results:

Ocean release of cesium-137 from Fukushima (the worst ever recorded): 121.6 to 131.2 quadrillion Becquerel (16% x 760 to 820 quadrillion Bq). Atmospheric release of Cesium-137 from Fukushima: 30.4 to 32.8 quadrillion Becquerel (4% x 760 to 820 quadrillion Bq).

Total release of Cesium-137 to the environment from Fukushima: 152 to 164 quadrillion Becquerel. Total release of Cesium-137 into the environment from Chernobyl: between 70 and 110 quadrillion Bq.

The Fukushima-Daiichi reactors’ estimated inventory of 760 to 820 quadrillion Bq (petabecquerels) of Cesium-137 used by the KAER Institute is significantly lower than the US Department of Energy’s estimate of 1,300 quadrillion Bq. It is possible the Korean institute’s estimates of radioactive releases are low.

In Chernobyl, 30 years after its explosions and fire, what the Wall St. Journal last year called “the $2.45 billion shelter implementation plan” was finally completed in November 2016. A huge metal cover was moved into place over the wreckage of the reactor and its crumbling, hastily erected cement tomb. The giant new cover is 350 feet high, and engineers say it should last 100 years — far short of the 250,000-year radiation hazard underneath.

The first cover was going to work for a century too, but by 1996 was riddled with cracks and in danger of collapsing. Designers went to work then engineering a cover-for-the-cover, and after 20 years of work, the smoking radioactive waste monstrosity of Chernobyl has a new “tin chapeau.” But with extreme weather, tornadoes, earth tremors, corrosion and radiation-induced embrittlement it could need replacing about 2,500 times. ”

by John LaForge, CounterPunch

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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

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How Fukushima turned a nuclear advocate into an antinuclear champion — The Christian Science Monitor

” Trading “le nucléaire” for renewables is a tough sell in the planet’s most nuclear-dependent nation.

Naoto Kan came to France anyway. The once pro-nuclear former prime minister who led Japan through the Fukushima nuclear disaster recently made a swing through one of France’s most nuclearized areas – the tip of Normandy – giving struggling environmentalists a rare boost.

An improbable activist in his conservative dark suit and tie, Mr. Kan came to explain his 180-degree switch from pro-nuclear to antinuclear crusader, and urge people to go for renewables instead.

“I came here because I am fiercely opposed to nuclear power, and I want to show my solidarity with people fighting it here,” Kan politely told a small crowd of activists near Flamanville’s controversial EPR nuclear reactor. “Before Fukushima I was pronuclear,” he said, laying flowers on a homemade memorial to unknown radiation victims whose slogan, “aux irradiés inconnus,” mimics monuments to unknown soldiers dotting France. “But with Fukushima, we almost had to evacuate millions of people, and I realized we had to stop nuclear power – in France, Japan, the world – and turn to renewables as fast as possible.”

Kan’s unusual visit buoyed “écolos” in rural Normandy, where the nuclear industry employs thousands and its critics feel marginalized. “We’re used to criticism, but his message is universal, so he gives the opposition credibility,” said retired schoolteacher and veteran activist Paulette Anger, secretary of Crilan, one of two small anti-nuclear groups hosting Kan.

How to produce electricity safely is a quandary many countries have grappled with since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster – the planet’s second major nuclear accident after the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe. It’s a question Kan never thought he’d face when he became prime minister of Japan on June 8, 2010.

Nine months later, Japan’s worst nuclear accident confronted him with its greatest crisis since World War II.

Kan was a science buff who thought nuclear power was needed in a plugged-in world. After majoring in applied physics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, he was drawn to ’60s activism, and then entered politics.

But on March 11, 2011, a massive category-9 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan’s east coast, killing thousands. Huge waves swamped the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, knocking out electric power to its six reactors and seven spent fuel pools.

Kan followed with dread as the power loss halted cooling to the nuclear fuel rods in the reactors and spent fuel pools. The failure of all backup fixes inexorably led to three meltdowns and several hydrogen explosions, spewing long-lived radioactive poisons across the countryside.

“Human error is inevitable,” Kan told a rapt crowd of 400, packed into a community center near Flamanville’s village church. Because a nuclear accident robs people of their lives and ancestral lands, the risk is too high, Kan said in guttural Japanese, pausing for his translator to catch up. “So I’m trying to use this terrible experience to convince as many people as I can to get out of nuclear power.”

For his antinuclear hosts, Kan was the biggest guest star since oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau came to fight the Flamanville reactors decades ago.

“It’s remarkable to have the former prime minister here,” said retired schoolteacher and antinuclear veteran Didier Anger, president of Crilan and a spokesman for Can-Ouest, the two antinuclear groups co-hosting Kan. “When someone changes their mind as Mr. Naoto Kan has, bravo!” he said to resounding applause.

A fictionalized film of the disaster’s first days accompanied Kan. “Le Couvercle du Soleil” (“The Seal of the Sun”), produced by Tomiyoshi Tachibana, shows the besieged prime minister struggling to understand the problem so he can react without causing panic. The secretive fictional power company lies and stalls. A chain of errors leads to disaster. In a key turning point, radiation levels in the doomed plants get so high the power company wants to leave. In what investigators conclude “saves Japan,” Kan orders them to stay.

An earthquake and tsunami are catastrophes that end, Kan explains in his book, “My Nuclear Nightmare.” But leaving an unmanageable nuclear reactor alone only lets things get worse.

The disaster released massive amounts of radiation, created 160,000 refugees, drove farmers to suicide, and rendered a beautiful part of Japan uninhabitable for years. After a no-confidence vote, Kan resigned, but not before insisting on legislation easing Japan’s path to renewables.

Chernobyl got explained away as an accident in an old reactor in an undeveloped nation. For Kan, Fukushima underscored the false assumption that nuclear disaster can’t happen in a high-tech country. By luck, he didn’t have to order Tokyo and 50 million people evacuated for 30 to 50 years, he said.

Now, Kan travels the world as a guest of antinuclear groups, warning about the powerful collection of special interests promoting nuclear power.

“Those who benefit from nuclear power are not the ones who will pay,” he warned, noting that the half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years. Fukushima, he stressed, is not over.

After speaking to the National Assembly in Paris and the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Kan toured Normandy’s “nuclear peninsula.” Activists took Kan along the rugged coast to view Flamanville’s controversial EPR reactor from a cliff. They drove him past France’s oldest nuclear waste dump to the huge La Hague nuclear waste reprocessing plant, home of Europe’s largest store of nuclear materials, tons of plutonium, and thousands of tons of nuclear waste. A citizen scientist from the independent radiation lab ACRO showed Kan two contaminated streams amid bucolic cow pastures behind the nuclear waste plant, including one where authorities last year confirmed plutonium in sediments. Kan admired the grand view at the peninsula’s jagged tip, where the waste plant’s discharge pipe routinely pours thousands of gallons of radioactive wastewater out to sea with government permission.

After the disaster, Japan shut down its 54 nuclear reactors, 12 of them permanently. Five restarted, but efforts to restart more are stalled by public opposition. Kan wants them all shut down.

Fukushima had a profound effect on global nuclear programs, said Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based independent energy and nuclear policy analyst and lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. “It accelerated its decline in Europe, the US, globally – and significantly slowed down expansion in China.”

Still, France’s 58 reactors produce almost three-quarters of its electricity.

Flamanville’s Mayor Patrick Fauchon echoed the French industry view that its plants are safe. “I think it’s important that he share his experience,” he said of Kan. “But it’s his fight.” As for a nuclear accident here: “I’m not particularly worried.”

Meanwhile, Kan’s visit left veteran critics of le nucléaire feeling buoyed.

“It probably won’t change opinions on the pronuclear side,” Ms. Anger said. “But because he lived through certain things and was once pronuclear, it made them think. His visit enormously enhanced our credibility. It was a big event.” ”

by contributor Clare Kittredge, The Christian Science Monitor

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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

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