Tue, Oct 30, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Contaminated water from nuclear plant causing concern in Japan

Dangerous material at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant will take decades to clean up, with radioactive water that leaked out of damaged reactors proving a headachce

By Mari Yamaguchi  /  AP, TOKYO

Illustration: Yusha

Japan’s crippled nuclear power plant is struggling to find space to store tens of thousands of tonnes of highly contaminated water used to cool the broken reactors, the manager of the water treatment team said.

About 180,000 tonnes of radioactive water — enough to fill more than 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools — is being stored in hundreds of gigantic tanks built around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) has already chopped down trees to make room for more tanks and predicts the volume of water will more than triple within three years.

“It’s a pressing issue because our land is limited and we will eventually run out of storage space,” the water-treatment manager, Yuichi Okamura, told reporters this week.

TEPCO is close to running a new treatment system that could make the water safe enough to release into the ocean. However, in the meantime its tanks are filling up — mostly because leaks in reactor facilities are allowing ground water to pour in.

Outside experts worry that if contaminated water is released, there will be lasting impact on the environment. They fear that because of the reactor leaks and water flowing from one part of the plant to another, that may already be happening.

Nuclear engineer and college lecturer Masashi Goto said the contaminated water buildup poses a long-term health and environmental threat. He worries that the radioactive water in the basements may already be getting into the underground water system, where it could reach far beyond the plant, possibly into the ocean or public water supplies.

“You never know where it’s leaking out and once it’s out you can never put it back in place,” he said. “It’s just outrageous and shows how big a disaster the accident is.”

The concerns are less severe than the nightmare scenario TEPCO faced in the weeks after last year’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and cooling systems at the plant, leading to explosions and meltdowns of three reactor cores in the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The plant released radiation into the surrounding air, soil and ocean and displaced more than 100,000 residents who are uncertain when — or if — they will be able to return to their homes.

Dumping massive amounts of water into the melting reactors was the only way to avoid an even bigger catastrophe.

Okamura remembers frantically trying to find a way to get water to spent fuel pools located on the highest floor of the 50m-high reactor buildings. Without water, the spent fuel likely would have overheated and melted, sending radioactive smoke for kilometers and affecting possibly millions of people.

“The water would keep evaporating, and the pools would have dried up if we had left them alone,” he said. “That would have been the end of it.”

Attempts to dump water from helicopters were ineffective. Spraying water from fire trucks into the pools did not work either. Okamura then helped bring in a huge, German-made concrete-making pump with a remote-controlled arm that was long enough to spray water into the fuel pools.

The plan worked — just in time, Okamura said.

Those measures and others helped bring the plant under tenuous control, but it will take decades to clean up the radioactive material and those desperate steps created another huge headache for the utility: What to do with all that radioactive water that leaked out of the damaged reactors and collected in the basements of reactor buildings and nearby facilities.

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