Eight years on, water woes threaten Fukushima cleanup — Reuters

” OKUMA, Japan (Reuters) – Eight years after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, a fresh obstacle threatens to undermine the massive clean-up: 1 million tons of contaminated water must be stored, possibly for years, at the power plant.

Last year, Tokyo Electric Power Co said a system meant to purify contaminated water had failed to remove dangerous radioactive contaminants.

That means most of that water – stored in 1,000 tanks around the plant – will need to be reprocessed before it is released into the ocean, the most likely scenario for disposal.

Reprocessing could take nearly two years and divert personnel and energy from dismantling the tsunami-wrecked reactors, a project that will take up to 40 years.

It is unclear how much that would delay decommissioning. But any delay could be pricey; the government estimated in 2016 that the total cost of plant dismantling, decontamination of affected areas, and compensation, would amount to 21.5 trillion yen ($192.5 billion), roughly 20 percent of the country’s annual budget.

Tepco is already running out of space to store treated water. And should another big quake strike, experts say tanks could crack, unleashing tainted liquid and washing highly radioactive debris into the ocean.

Fishermen struggling to win back the confidence of consumers are vehemently opposed to releasing reprocessed water – deemed largely harmless by Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) – into the ocean.

“That would destroy what we’ve been building over the past eight years,” said Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations. Last year’s catch was just 15 percent of pre-crisis levels, partly because of consumer reluctance to eat fish caught off Fukushima.


On a visit to the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi plant last month, huge cranes hovered over the four reactor buildings that hug the coast. Workers could be seen atop the No. 3 building getting equipment ready to lift spent fuel rods out of a storage pool, a process that could start next month.

In most areas around the plant, workers no longer need to wear face masks and full body suits to protect against radiation. Only the reactor buildings or other restricted areas require special equipment.

Fanning out across the plant’s property are enough tanks to fill 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Machines called Advanced Liquid Processing Systems, or ALPS, had treated the water inside them.

Tepco said the equipment could remove all radionuclides except tritium, a relatively harmless hydrogen isotope that is hard to separate from water. Tritium-laced water is released into the environment at nuclear sites around the world.

But after newspaper reports last year questioned the effectiveness of ALPS-processed water, Tepco acknowledged that strontium-90 and other radioactive elements remained in many of the tanks.

Tepco said the problems occurred because absorbent materials in the equipment had not been changed frequently enough.

The utility has promised to re-purify the water if the government decides that releasing it into the ocean is the best solution. It is the cheapest of five options a government task force considered in 2016; others included evaporation and burial.

Tepco and the government are now waiting for another panel of experts to issue recommendations. The head of the panel declined an interview request. No deadline has been set.

NRA chief Toyoshi Fuketa believes ocean release after dilution is the only feasible way to handle the water problem. He has warned that postponing the decision indefinitely could derail the decommissioning project.


Another option is to store the water for decades in enormous tanks normally used for crude oil. The tanks have been tested for durability, said Yasuro Kawai, a plant engineer and a member of Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy, a group advocating abandoning nuclear energy.

Each tank holds 100,000 tons, so 10 such tanks could store the roughly 1 million tons of water processed by ALPS so far, he said.

The commission proposes holding the tritium-laced water, which has a half life of 12.3 years, in tanks for 123 years. After that, it will be one thousandth as radioactive as it was when it went into storage.

Although experts caution that tanks would be vulnerable to major quakes, Japan’s trade and industry minister, Hiroshige Seko, said the committee would consider them anyway.

“Long-term storage … has an upside as radiation levels come down while it is in storage. But there is a risk of leakage,” Seko told Reuters. “It is difficult to hold the water indefinitely, so the panel will also look into how it should be disposed of eventually.”

Space is also a problem, said Akira Ono, Tepco’s chief decommissioning officer. By 2020, the utility will expand tank storage capacity by 10 percent to 1.37 million tons, and about 95 percent of total capacity will probably be used by the end of that year, he said.

“Tanks are now being built on flat, elevated spots in stable locations,” Ono said. But such ideal space is getting scarce, he added.

Many local residents hope Tepco will just keep storing the water. If it does get released into the ocean, “everyone would sink into depression,” said fishing trawler captain Koichi Matsumoto.

Fukushima was once popular with surfers. But young people in the area do not go surfing any more because they’ve been repeatedly warned about suspected radioactivity in the water, said surf shop owner Yuichiro Kobayashi.

Releasing treated water from the plant “could end up chasing the next generation of children away from the sea as well,” he said.

Ono says dealing with contaminated water is one of many complex issues involved in decommissioning.

A year ago, when he took over leading the effort, it felt like the project had just “entered the trailhead,” he said. “Now, it feels like we’re really starting to climb.” ”

Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Malcolm Foster and Gerry Doyle, Reuters


The Fukushima crisis comes to the States — Esquire

” The catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power plant — aka Yesterday’s Tragedy — appears to be ongoing, and Alaska now has become part of the story.

Some radiation has arrived in northern Alaska and along the west coast. That’s raised concern over contamination of fish and wildlife. More may be heading toward coastal communities like Haines and Skagway. Douglas Dasher, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says radiation levels in Alaskan waters could reach Cold War levels. “The levels they are projecting in some of the models are in the ballpark of what they saw in the North Pacific in the 1960s,” he said.

That was when we were blowing up nuclear bombs all over the ocean because Communism. This resulted in an extended game of genetic roulette for the local populations. This was in no way a good thing. Meanwhile, back on site, it appears that local quality control may not have been what it should have been (h/t the C&L gang).

When tons of radioactive water leaked from a storage tank at Fukushima’s crippled nuclear power plant and other containers hurriedly put up by the operator encountered problems, Yoshitatsu Uechi was not surprised. He wonders if one of the tanks he built will be next. He’s an auto mechanic. He was a tour-bus driver for a while. He had no experience building tanks or working at a nuclear plant, but for six months last year, he was part of the team frantically trying to create new places for contaminated water to go.

What the fk? I mean, seriously, what the fkity fk fk? A tour-bus driver is helping throw together the response to the worst nuclear disaster in 30 years? Was the sous-chef at the local Applebee’s busy that day?

Uechi and co-workers were under such pressure to build tanks quickly that they did not wait for dry conditions to apply anti-rust coating over bolts and around seams as they were supposed to; they did the work even in rain or snow. Sometimes the concrete foundation they laid for the tanks came out bumpy. Sometimes the workers saw tanks being used to store water before they were even finished.


It’s past time for the world to step in because this problem now is riding on the wind and the tides to places far from Fukushima. Japan has had its chance to manage this disaster, and, despite the best efforts of its tour-bus operators, Japan has failed miserably. For example, there are 1,500 spent fuel rods that the company running the plant doesn’t know what to do with. Lovely, again.

Tepco hopes that a smooth start to the removals will help it regain at least some of the credibility it lost in its response to the quake and tsunami that overwhelmed the plant and in the cleanup. A string of blunders by Tepco, including underestimating the potential for large amounts of groundwater to become contaminated and reach the ocean, has some experts wondering whether the company is up to the task. Even minor problems with the fuel removal could strengthen calls for the decommissioning work to be taken out of Tepco’s hands. “All I can do is pray that nothing goes wrong,” said Yasuro Kawai, a former plant engineer who now heads a group that is independently monitoring the decommissioning process.

Me, too. Also, Alaska. ”


Removing fuel rods poses new risks at crippled nuclear plant in Japan — The New York Times

” TOKYO — It was the part of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that spooked American officials the most, as the complex spiraled out of control two and a half years ago: the spent fuel pool at Reactor No. 4, with more than 1,500 radioactive fuel assemblies left exposed when a hydrogen explosion blew the roof off the building.

Members of the media inside the Fukushima Daiichi plant on Thursday. The plant’s operator plans to start moving radioactive fuel to safer storage.

In the next 10 days, the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, is set to start the delicate and risky task of using a crane to remove the fuel assemblies from the pool, a critical step in a long decommissioning process that has already had serious setbacks.

Just 36 men will carry out the tense operation to move the fuel to safer storage; they will work in groups of six in two-hour shifts throughout the day for months. A separate team will work overnight to clear any debris inside the pool that might cause the fuel to jam when a crane tries to lift it out, possibly causing damage.

“We are making our final preparations,” Naomi Hirose, the president of the company, known as Tepco, said at a news conference on Friday. “We hope to be done by the end of next year.”

The attempt to remove the fuel rods underscores the complicated, potentially hazardous work that lies ahead at the plant, which was crippled by explosions and by meltdowns in three of its reactors in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

The operation addresses a threat that has hung over the plant since the crisis started. Though the fuel has cooled significantly since the early days of the crisis, and Tepco has shored up the reactor building, it is still dangerous to have the fuel high up in a damaged structure that could collapse in another quake, experts warn.

But removing it poses dangers, too. The fuel rods must remain immersed in water to block the gamma radiation they emit and allow workers to be in the area, and to prevent the rods from overheating. An accident could expose the rods and — in a worst-case scenario, some experts say — allow them to release radioactive materials beyond the plant.

Plant engineers will use a crane to lift the fuel assemblies from the pool and put them into giant casks of water. Each cask will be placed on a trailer and moved to a more secure pool at ground level.

“There are potentially very big risks involved,” Shunichi Tanaka, the head of Japan’s nuclear regulator, said last week. “Each assembly must be handled very carefully.”

Tepco hopes that a smooth start to the removals will help it regain at least some of the credibility it lost in its response to the quake and tsunami that overwhelmed the plant and in the cleanup.

A string of blunders by Tepco, including underestimating the potential for large amounts of groundwater to become contaminated and reach the ocean, has some experts wondering whether the company is up to the task.

Even minor problems with the fuel removal could strengthen calls for the decommissioning work to be taken out of Tepco’s hands.

“All I can do is pray that nothing goes wrong,” said Yasuro Kawai, a former plant engineer who now heads a group that is independently monitoring the decommissioning process.

He said much depends on whether the assemblies were damaged during removal — for example, if the casks carrying them were to accidentally fall to the ground, exposing the rods — and whether such damage was severe enough to force workers to evacuate.

“If they drop the rods, will the situation be easily contained, or do we need to worry about a more dangerous chain of events?” Mr. Kawai said. “There are just too many variables involved to say for sure.”

Tepco officials said the removal plan has been vetted by the company’s engineers and outside experts, including the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the work will be carried out by a Tepco-led team and without external supervision.

The company said it has taken extra precautions. The plant has been preparing for months, erecting a steel structure around and over the damaged reactor building and fitting it with a crane to lift the casks about 100 feet in the air. Underwater cameras will help engineers search for debris, left from the original explosion, that might jam the assemblies, and a robotic arm will be used to try to remove any debris that does get in the way.

The crane is designed to hold its load if power is lost, and Tepco said it has doubled the cabling that will lift the cask, which could weigh as much as 90 tons when filled.

The biggest fear is that an earthquake or tsunami will disrupt the fuel assembly transfer. Sizable aftershocks from the 2011 quake frequently jolt the region. Last month, a magnitude-7.1 quake off the coast near Fukushima caused a small tsunami.

Tepco has said the steel covering structure and crane can withstand an earthquake as strong as the magnitude-9.0 quake that damaged the plant in 2011.

Lake H. Barrett, a former United States Department of Energy official who was in charge of removing fuel from a stricken reactor after an accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, is now a special adviser to the president of Tepco. He said he believed that the risks in removing the fuel from the Reactor No. 4 pool at Fukushima were small and that a significant release of radioactive material was highly unlikely.

And when the job is done, Mr. Barrett said, the overall danger will be reduced.

This fuel “really needs to come back down to a ground-level pool that is not damaged,” he said. “That’s going to improve the risk situation.”

In the early days of the crisis, American officials were so worried about the pool that they advised Americans to stay farther from the plant than the Japanese government ordered, which many Japanese officials still remember with humiliation. The worst-case scenario of a breach in the pool, leaving the fuel rods uncovered, has not happened, and Tepco believes the fuel assemblies have relatively little damage. “