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 decommissioning delays, challenges and unknowns remain roadblocks to cleanup — Beyond Nuclear

” Six and a half years after the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown, Japan’s government, the nuclear regulator and Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) most rudimentary plan of attack for recovery from radioactive catastrophe is delayed again. The first steps of decommissioning cannot legitimately begin until undamaged but highly radioactive “spent” fuel assemblies are removed from vulnerable reactor storage ponds, sufficiently cooled and re-contained in qualified dry storage casks.  Then, there are the three melted fuel cores that still must be located, retrieved and somehow re-contained. Where all of the massive radioactive contamination will go is a mystery.  In fact, there are an alarming number of challenges, continuing delays and unknowns that remain before securing the destroyed nuclear power station site and halting the ongoing release of radioactivity to the land, water and air.

Among the most immediate concerns is the management of 1007 highly radioactive and thermally hot irradiated nuclear fuel assemblies still in the two cooling pools perched atop the destroyed Units 1 and 2 outside of any containment structure. Each of the site’s six-units has an elevated nuclear waste storage pond. The site has a large common pool located near Unit 4. The government recently admitted that previously unknown, possibly undisclosed, damage in these irradiated fuel storage ponds and radioactive contamination has again delayed the plan to move the dangerous fuel assemblies by at least another three years, now 2023. Unit 3 remains on schedule in 2018 to begin the two-year transfer of 514 irradiated fuel assemblies from its rooftop storage pool to a jam-packed common onsite pool located at ground level. This common pool and its massive radioactive inventory requires reliable cooling power.  Unit 4 completed a three-year project to transfer its irradiated fuel into the common pool in 2014. The common pool now has 6,726 irrradiated fuel assemblies with a maximum design capacity of 6,840. As this common pool is already densely packed, it is ever more critical that Japan expedite the transfer of the sufficiently cooled irradiated nuclear fuel into qualified, individualized dry storage casks that can passively cool the hot nuclear waste without the need for water and electrical power. Currently, only 1,412 irradiated assemblies have been secured in onsite dry cask storage. These dry casks further need to be hardened against another natural disaster and possible terrorism.

The recurring delays at securing the irradiated fuel currently in wet pool storage (individual units to the common pool) and then into scientifically-qualified and hardened dry cask storage systems raises concern for public health, safety and the environment given the prospect of another large nearby earthquake causing a loss of cooling with the risk of a nuclear waste fire and radioactive releases. A 6.9 magnitude offshore earthquake on November 21, 2016 caused a temporary loss of cooling to wet storage systems at Fukushima Daiichi. Significant earthquakes of 6.0 to 6.9 magnitude occur in Japan on average 17 times per year, roughly one-tenth of all large earthquakes in the world. More severe earthquakes must be anticipated. The loss of cooling power and water to some or all of the more than 11,577 hot nuclear waste assemblies onsite outside of containment remains a significant public health, safety and environmental concern.

Japan is still technologically conceptualizing the “most challenging part” of Fukushima Daiichi’s decommissioning and the recovery of three missing melted reactor cores if and when they can be located. The unprecedented operation has now been delayed until 2019.  A viable technology for scooping up melted nuclear fuel does not yet exist. Re-containment and removal of the melted fuel cores is key to addressing the ongoing massive buildup of radioactive water now estimated at 800,000 tons that is being stored in growing onsite tank farms.  Groundwater flowing down into the reactor wreckage must be constantly pumped out, partially filtered of radioactivity and stored onsite in the large tanks. The tank farms themselves represent an additional environmental threat in the event of another severe earthquake that could rupture the structures with a radioactive flood into the ocean. ”

by Beyond Nuclear

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