The tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi power plant has led to the toughest nuclear cleanup ever. Radioactive water is still poisoning the sea – and it could take 40 years to fix the mess. Is Japan up to the challenge?
Carefully, gently, one-by-one. The removal of nuclear fuel rod assemblies from a badly damaged building at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant is finally under way. Months in the planning, the job is risky, complex, and crucial. Here begins the first major step in the toughest decommissioning project ever attempted.
Fukushima is home to six nuclear reactors, three of which were running when the giant tsunami swept across the site on 11 March 2011. The defuelling operation centres on the building for reactor four. Though the reactor was shut down for maintenance when the towering wave struck, all its radioactive fuel, and more from earlier runs, was held in a storage pool on an upper floor of the building.
Under normal conditions, the storage pool above the reactor was a safe haven. But four days into the crisis a hydrogen explosion tore through the structure and blew the walls and roof off. Moving the radioactive fuel from the wrecked building to a more secure site became a high priority. Some fuel assemblies have already been moved. Workers use a crane to reach down into the pool, lift an assembly from its rack, then lower it into a waiting cask that sits upright on the pool floor. When a cask is full – each can take 22 fuel assemblies – a second crane hoists it from the pool and places it on a trailer. Filled casks are then transported to a more secure storage facility on the site.
The procedure sounds straightforward enough. But there are 1,533 fuel assemblies in the pool at building four. Each is 4m long, and holds up to 80 individual fuel rods. The team of 36 workers that are responsible for the job will work in six shifts around the clock. The job will take until the end of 2014. And that is with no glitches.
But the work at reactor four is only the start. Once the fuel is removed to a safer place, workers will turn their attention to a further 1,573 fuel rod assemblies held in similar pools in the buildings for reactors one, two and three. All were running when the tsunami struck; all suffered meltdowns. The radiation in these buildings is still intense, and access inside is limited.
To fully decommission Fukushima Daiichi might take 40 years and no one expects a cakewalk. Independent researchers point to the litany of mishaps that has blighted the cleanup. They doubt the plant’s operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) is up to the task, and want a global team of experts to take over. Even high-level advisers signed up by Tepco describe the decommissioning project as an “unprecedented” challenge. At stake is Tepco’s reputation, the health and livelihoods of local communities, and the future direction of the industry worldwide.
Good news is hard to find around Fukushima. In the earliest days of the crisis, a plume of radioactive material blew northwest from the site and settled as a teardrop scar reaching more than 30km across the land. From the coastline, through the towns of Okuma, Futaba and Namie, are huge patches of ground where the additional annual dose of radiation is more than 50 millisieverts. Natural background radiation, from cosmic rays and sources in the air and rock, reaches 2 to 3 millisieverts per year.
A preliminary IAEA report in October on efforts to clean up the contaminated land was full of praise for the remediation work so far, and made a handful of gentle suggestions for improvement. Yet the work is far behind schedule in seven of 11 selected towns and villages; the deadline of March 2014 is now unachievable. This month, officials in Japan admitted for the first time that thousands of evacuees from the worst affected areas may never return home. The governing Liberal Democratic party says a more realistic approach is needed: it wants compensation for the 160,000 people displaced by the radioactive leak, so they can rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Up on the cliff overlooking the Fukushima plant is a bleak reminder of an ongoing battle at the site. This strip of land was once filled with trees, a place for workers to go walking. Tepco has cut the trees down now, to make room for 1,000 huge metal storage tanks. They hold more than 360,000 tonnes of radioactive water, enough to fill 140 Olympic swimming pools. The volume rises every day. Over the next three years, Tepco wants to add storage for another 270,000 tonnes of radioactive wastewater. Ultimately, the water must be returned to the Pacific. There is nowhere else for it to go.
Tepco estimates that around 300 tonnes of contaminated groundwater still flow into the Pacific each day. The levels of radioactivity are small compared with the releases in 2011. Buesseler has measured contamination in water, fish and other organisms from a ship off the coast of Fukushima since the accident unfurled. He is not worried about the immediate health risk, but says fish and other marine life will concentrate radioactive substances, making them unsuitable for consumption for years. “We’re not talking about levels that cause direct harm when I’m one kilometre offshore,” says Buesseler. “But through the uptake into the seafood and fisheries, you end up having to keep those closed, and that’s a billion dollar industry and a cultural loss for Japan.”
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- Fukushima two years on: a dirty job with no end in sight via the guardian
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- 放射性物質、メキシコで盗難 「汚い爆弾」の原料 via 朝日新聞
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- Fukushima Radiation Exceeds Chernobyl Evacuation Levels Across Japan via Simply Info
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