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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*The Fukushima nuclear meltdown continues unabated – Helen Caldicott, Global Research News

Dr. Helen Caldicott really tells it how it is. No sugarcoating in this article, just the cold, hard facts.

” Recent reporting of a huge radiation measurement at Unit 2 in the Fukushima Daichi reactor complex does not signify that there is a peak in radiation in the reactor building.

All that it indicates is that, for the first time, the Japanese have been able to measure the intense radiation given off by the molten fuel, as each previous attempt has led to failure because the radiation is so intense the robotic parts were functionally destroyed.

The radiation measurement was 530 sieverts, or 53,000 rems (Roentgen Equivalent for Man). The dose at which half an exposed population would die is 250 to 500 rems, so this is a massive measurement. It is quite likely had the robot been able to penetrate deeper into the inner cavern containing the molten corium, the measurement would have been much greater.

These facts illustrate why it will be almost impossible to “decommission” units 1, 2 and 3 as no human could ever be exposed to such extreme radiation. This fact means that Fukushima Daichi will remain a diabolical blot upon Japan and the world for the rest of time, sitting as it does on active earthquake zones.

What the photos taken by the robot did reveal was that some of the structural supports of Unit 2 have been damaged. It is also true that all four buildings were structurally damaged by the original earthquake some five years ago and by the subsequent hydrogen explosions so, should there be an earthquake greater than seven on the Richter scale, it is very possible that one or more of these structures could collapse, leading to a massive release of radiation as the building fell on the molten core beneath. But units 1, 2 and 3 also contain cooling pools with very radioactive fuel rods — numbering 392 in Unit 1, 615 in Unit 2, and 566 in Unit 3; if an earthquake were to breach a pool, the gamma rays would be so intense that the site would have to be permanently evacuated. The fuel from Unit 4 and its cooling pool has been removed.

But there is more to fear.

The reactor complex was built adjacent to a mountain range and millions of gallons of water emanate from the mountains daily beneath the reactor complex, causing some of the earth below the reactor buildings to partially liquefy. As the water flows beneath the damaged reactors, it immerses the three molten cores and becomes extremely radioactive as it continues its journey into the adjacent Pacific Ocean.

Every day since the accident began, 300 to 400 tons of water has poured into the Pacific where numerous isotopes – including cesium 137, 134, strontium 90, tritium, plutonium, americium and up to 100 more – enter the ocean and bio-concentrate by orders of magnitude at each step of the food chain — algae, crustaceans, little fish, big fish then us.

Fish swim thousands of miles and tuna, salmon and other species found on the American west coast now contain some of these radioactive elements, which are tasteless, odourless and invisible. Entering the human body by ingestion they concentrate in various organs, irradiating adjacent cells for many years. The cancer cycle is initiated by a single mutation in a single regulatory gene in a single cell and the incubation time for cancer is any time from 2 to 90 years. And no cancer defines its origin.

We could be catching radioactive fish in Australia or the fish that are imported could contain radioactive isotopes, but unless they are consistently tested we will never know.

As well as the mountain water reaching the Pacific Ocean, since the accident, TEPCO has daily pumped over 300 tons of sea water into the damaged reactors to keep them cool. It becomes intensely radioactive and is pumped out again and stored in over 1,200 huge storage tanks scattered over the Daichi site. These tanks could not withstand a large earthquake and could rupture releasing their contents into the ocean.

But even if that does not happen, TEPCO is rapidly running out of storage space and is trying to convince the local fishermen that it would be okay to empty the tanks into the sea. The Bremsstrahlung radiation like x-rays given off by these tanks is quite high – measuring 10 milirems – presenting a danger to the workers. There are over 4,000 workers on site each day, many recruited by the Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia) and include men who are homeless, drug addicts and those who are mentally unstable.

There’s another problem. Because the molten cores are continuously generating hydrogen, which is explosive, TEPCO has been pumping nitrogen into the reactors to dilute the hydrogen dangers.

Vast areas of Japan are now contaminated, including some areas of Tokyo, which are so radioactive that roadside soil measuring 7,000 becquerels (bc) per kilo would qualify to be buried in a radioactive waste facility in the U.S..

As previously explained, these radioactive elements concentrate in the food chain. The Fukushima Prefecture has always been a food bowl for Japan and, although much of the rice, vegetables and fruit now grown here is radioactive, there is a big push to sell this food both in the Japanese market and overseas. Taiwan has banned the sale of Japanese food, but Australia and the U.S. have not.

Prime Minister Abe recently passed a law that any reporter who told the truth about the situation could be goaled for ten years. In addition, doctors who tell their patients their disease could be radiation related will not be paid, so there is an immense cover-up in Japan as well as the global media.

The Prefectural Oversite Committee for Fukushima Health is only looking at thyroid cancer among the population and by June 2016, 172 people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the accident have developed, or have suspected, thyroid cancer; the normal incidence in this population is 1 to 2 per million.

However, other cancers and leukemia that are caused by radiation are not being routinely documented, nor are congenital malformations, which were, and are, still rife among the exposed Chernobyl population.

Bottom line, these reactors will never be cleaned up nor decommissioned because such a task is not humanly possible. Hence, they will continue to pour water into the Pacific for the rest of time and threaten Japan and the northern hemisphere with massive releases of radiation should there be another large earthquake. ”

by Helen Caldicott, Global Research News, originally published in Independent Australia

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Fukushima dome roof takes shape, but radiation remains high — The Asahi Shimbun

” High radiation levels are still limiting recovery work at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, a stark reality that reporters saw firsthand when they observed efforts to remove risk factors there.

Media representatives were invited into the plant in early December to see construction work, with the building of a domed roof over the No. 3 reactor building as the main focus.

However, they were only allowed to stay on top of the roof for 20 minutes due to high radiation levels.

The roof is being put together directly above the storage pool for spent fuel. The dome is designed to prevent the spewing of radioactive materials when the fuel is actually removed from the pool.

The original roof of the No. 3 reactor building was severely damaged by a hydrogen explosion in the days following the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which led to the crippling of the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Spent fuel still remains in the storage pools located on the top floors of the No. 1 to No. 3 reactor buildings.

Plans call for removing the spent fuel first from the No. 3 reactor building.

Although the dome will help prevent the spread of radioactive materials, building parts and other debris as well as some equipment have still not been completely removed from the storage pool, which holds 566 fuel rods.

The collapsed roof and walls were removed to allow for the construction of the domed roof, which began in the summer. The domed roof is about 17 meters high, and a crane was also installed under it in November.

Plans call for the removal of the spent fuel from the No. 3 building to begin in the middle of the next fiscal year.

Internal radiation exposure levels were measured before media representatives headed to the No. 3 reactor building. They were also required to don protective clothing as well as a partial face mask covering the mouth and nose from about 100 meters from the building.

Radiation levels close to the building were 0.1 millisieverts per hour.

An elevator installed into the scaffolding next to the reactor building took the media representatives to the roof, which had been covered with metal plates.

The so-called operating floor looked like any other newly constructed building roof, a sharp contrast to the twisted metal parts that covered the building shortly after the nuclear accident.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s operator, captured video footage from within the reactors for the first time in July. Debris that appears to be melted nuclear fuel was found in various parts of the containment vessel.

To the south of the No. 3 reactor building stands the No. 4 reactor building, from where all the spent nuclear fuel has been removed.

To the north is the No. 2 reactor building, which avoided a hydrogen explosion. Beyond the building, cranes and other large equipment are working in preparation for the removal of debris from the No. 1 reactor building.

TEPCO officials cautioned media representatives about standing too long right next to the storage pool, which could be seen located about six meters below the roof. Debris was found within the pool while insulating material floated on the pool surface.

The radiation level near the pool was 0.68 millisieverts per hour. While that was a major improvement from the 800 millisieverts per hour recorded in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear accident close to seven years ago, it was still too high to allow for a stay of longer than 20 minutes. ”

by Chikako Kawahara, The Asahi Shimbun

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Botched gauge settings might have contaminated Fukushima groundwater from April onward: Tepco — The Japan Times

” The discovery of falsely configured monitoring equipment at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant means the groundwater flowing underneath it might have gotten contaminated from April onward, Tokyo Electric said Friday.

The utility said incorrect gauge settings were used to measure groundwater levels in six of the wells near reactors 1 and 4. This resulted in groundwater readings about 70 cm higher than reality, which means the beleaguered power utility has been mismanaging the groundwater there for months.

To prevent tainted water from leaking from the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. installed water gauges so it could keep the groundwater levels in the wells a meter higher than the contaminated water in the buildings.

Tepco adjusts the amount of water in wells called subdrains around the buildings to keep the groundwater higher than the tainted water inside them, which prevents it from flowing out. If the groundwater levels sink below the level of the radioactive water, it might leak out.

On Friday, Tepco said the estimated groundwater level in one of the six subdrain wells close to reactor 1 fell below the level in the reactor building at least eight times during the five-day period to May 21 because the gauges were set incorrectly.

Groundwater levels were 2 mm to 19 mm lower than the level in the buildings, Tepco said, adding that it does not know precisely how long each of these problematic situations lasted because water level data is collected by the hour.

Tepco said groundwater levels in five other wells affected by the incorrect settings did not fall below the levels in the nearby reactor buildings.

All six are in the area surrounded by an underground ice wall designed to prevent groundwater leakage.

According to Tepco, the incorrect settings date as far back as April 19. The earliest error affected the gauge in a well where groundwater fell to hazardous levels.

In the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, reactors 1, 2 and 3 at the plant experienced core meltdowns and reactors 1, 3 and 4 were severely damaged by hydrogen explosions following a massive offshore earthquake that spawned large tsunami in March 2011. ”

by Jiji, Kyodo via The Japan Times

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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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Tepco to delay emptying fuel storage pools at Fukushima plant — The Asahi Shimbun

” Plans to remove fuel rods from two spent fuel pools at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant will be delayed by up to three years because of difficulties in clearing debris and reducing radiation levels.

The government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. originally expected to start emptying the storage pools at the No. 1 and No. 2 reactor buildings in fiscal 2020.

But they plan to move the starting time to fiscal 2023 in their first review in two years of the roadmap for decommissioning the stricken nuclear plant, sources said Sept. 20.

They are expected to announce the revised roadmap later this month.

A survey of the upper levels of the two reactor buildings, where the storage pools are located, found debris piled up in a much more complicated way than initially envisaged.

That will lengthen the time needed to clear the debris, thus delaying the removal of the fuel rods, the sources said.

In addition, radiation levels remain extremely high inside the buildings.

The No. 1 reactor’s storage pool holds 392 nuclear fuel assemblies, while the No. 2 reactor’s pool has 615 assemblies.

Work to remove the 566 assemblies from the No. 3 reactor’s pool is scheduled to begin in the middle of fiscal 2018 as originally planned.

The three reactors melted down in the 2011 disaster, triggered by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

The review of the decommissioning roadmap is also expected to revise the target of “starting the removal” of melted nuclear fuel and debris in the three reactors in 2021 to “aiming to start the removal” in 2021.

But the government and TEPCO will maintain the goal of completing the decommissioning in “30 to 40 years,” the sources said. ”

by Chikako Kawahara, The Asahi Shimbun

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