Fukushima: enough radioactive wastewater to fill 112 Olympic-sized swimming pools — and counting

by David Safier

By now, the danger from the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant that was hit by a tsunami two years ago should be contained, or at least the cleanup should be heading in the right direction. Instead, it's a frightening, cautionary tale about how difficult it is to deal with a nuclear-related problem like this, and how politics and business interests make the situation even worse.

The latest problem. Groundwater that flows from nearby mountains to the sea flows through the contaminated area, something that didn't worry the plant's operators who are in charge of the cleanup (bad idea) or the oversight committee made up of nuclear industry insiders and government apologists (worse idea). Their solution? Store the water, decontaminate it as well as they can and dump it in the ocean. Right now, with 75 gallons of groundwater flowing in every minute,

A small army of workers has struggled to contain the continuous flow of radioactive wastewater, relying on hulking gray and silver storage tanks sprawling over 42 acres of parking lots and lawns. The tanks hold the equivalent of 112 Olympic-size pools.

They're running out of storage space, so they plan to chop down a small forest to make room for more tanks. Meanwhile, the plant is in such a precarious state, an earthquake could create another disaster.

Some hair-raising passages from the article:

That quandary along with an embarrassing string of mishaps — including a 29-hour power failure affecting another, less vital cooling system — have underscored an alarming reality: two years after the meltdowns, the plant remains vulnerable to the same sort of large earthquake and tsunami that set the original calamity in motion.

[snip]

The jury-rigged cooling loop that pours water over the damaged reactor cores is a mazelike collection of pumps, filters and pipes that snake two and a half miles along the ground through the plant. And a pool for storing used nuclear fuel remains perched on the fifth floor of a damaged reactor building as Tepco struggles to move the rods to a safer location.

The situation is worrisome enough that Shunichi Tanaka, a longtime nuclear power proponent who is the chairman of the newly created watchdog Nuclear Regulation Authority, told reporters after the announcement of the leaking pits that “there is concern that we cannot prevent another accident.”

[snip]

While doing a more rigorous job of policing Japan’s nuclear industry than regulators before the accident, the Nuclear Regulation Authority has a team of just nine inspectors to oversee the more than 3,000 workers at Fukushima.

[snip]

Tepco also rejected a proposal to build a concrete wall running more than 60 feet into the ground to block water from reaching the reactors and turbine buildings, and the Trade Ministry did not force the issue, according to experts and regulators who helped draw up the decommissioning plan.

[snip]

“We were so focused on the fuel rods and melted reactor cores that we underestimated the water problem,” said Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, a government body that helped draw up Tepco’s original cleanup plan. “Someone from outside the industry might have foreseen the water problem.”

Comments are closed.