We are facing a problem so large it’s impossible to see all its dimensions. Eventually, we’ll be able to grasp what’s happening, but for now, no. The radioactively contaminated water at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is but one, relatively small part of the greater cleanup at the disaster-stricken facility, and yet in absolute terms it is enormous.
There is the relentless flow of the groundwater, a massive amount of it gushing into the plant’s basements every day. There are plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) and the central government, both desperate to make the water stop somehow. And there are the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) and the mass media, surveying the contaminated water countermeasures with a dubious eye. Such is the disposition of the combatants in the battle to contain the toxic water building up every day at the Fukushima plant.
The enemies in this battle are high radiation levels and the ceaseless flow of groundwater. If this water pours into the reactor buildings and touches the atomic fuel inside, it picks up high concentrations of radioactive material, turning toxic. At the moment, this radioactive water is impossible to deal with.
The battle plan calls for contaminated water already pooling in the buildings to be pumped out and stored temporarily in tanks on-site before being put through the ALPS decontamination system, which filters out radioactive elements. To prevent yet more water from coming into the buildings, an ice wall is to be created beneath the ground that will block further incursions.
However, serious doubts have been raised over the feasibility of this battle plan. The water tanks that now cover much of the plant grounds have sprung leaks, and the ALPS system is plagued by seemingly endless breakdowns. Meanwhile, experts have questioned both the safety and effectiveness of the proposed subterranean ice wall. The sheer number of news reports of “yet another leak” and countermeasures that were “unreliable” risks numbing the public to their significance, but the battle at the plant continues nonetheless.
On April 25 this year, the NRA submitted 24 questions on the safety and effectiveness of the ice wall plan to TEPCO and the national government, and it now looks like the operation — scheduled to commence in June — will be delayed.
Some critics have said that a concrete wall would be better than ice. TEPCO, however, has pointed out that the ice barrier requires only that holes be drilled into the ground, limiting workers’ exposure to the high radioactivity on the site. The national government, meanwhile, wants to see the contaminated water problem solved before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The plan, however, could fail, and there is a further risk that the excavation work could disturb the crust around the reactors.
(By Takao Yamada, expert senior writer)