Friday, 27 September 2013

JAPAN: TEPCO & Fukushima

Japan is stumbling helplessly from one crisis to the next as it battles the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, but a quick solution is unlikely.

Workers from Japan’s TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi plant have located a crack in the bottom of a tank that may have leaked 300 tons of radioactive water in August, Japanese media reports. This comes as the company seeks to reopen another nuclear plant.

The water that was being pumped into the tank at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant could have caused the existing gap to expand and likely led to the massive leak. The leak which sparked the crisis came from one of the 1,000 above-ground storage tanks built inside the plant by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The company promised to continue their investigations.

Moreover, silt fences intended to prevent soil containing radioactive substances from slipping into the ocean were found to be damaged on Thursday. The damage was found close to the buildings of the fifth and sixth units. Both were on cold shutdown for planned maintenance, thereby managing to avoid meltdowns.

TEPCO has been stumbling from crisis to crisis. And with no improvement in sight, it had recently become clear that Japan would find itself, out of necessity, doing something that is generally considered very un-Japanese: asking for foreign help.

Japan had thus far taken the view that it didn't need any help -- certainly not from abroad -- and that TEPCO would take care of things. This is despite the fact that the company is an energy provider, with little more experience in complex disaster management than a commensurate energy company in US would have.

Accordingly, the situation at Fukushima two and a half years after the nuclear meltdown can at best be described as tenuous. Rather than implementing a clearly thought-out disaster management plan, TEPCO's approach has been a haphazard patchwork.

Every day, TEPCO pumps 400 tons of contaminated cooling water and groundwater out of the radioactive wreckage of Fukushima. This water is too heavily contaminated with cesium, strontium and tritium to be emptied into the ocean. Instead, TEPCO stores the liquid in numerous tanks, the largest of which are 12 meters (40 feet) across and 11 meters high, hastily riveted together rather than welded.

Satellite images show how these behemoths have proliferated at the Fukushima site, with a few dozen of them in mid-2011, then several hundred by mid-2012. Currently, there are over 1,000 such tanks, with plans for over 2,000 of them by 2015. TEPCO is veritably drowning in contaminated water.

When one of these makeshift containers recently sprang a leak, it apparently took weeks before the company's two-person foot-patrol passed by and noticed it, by which time 300 tons of highly contaminated water had seeped out of the tank. This event ranks as a level three "serious incident" on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). In comparison, the catastrophe at Chernobyl and the 2011 Fukushima triple meltdown are both classified at the maximum level, seven.

There's little question that more of these tanks will develop leaks, with a number of them approaching their expiration dates and only some of the tanks outfitted with sensors to provide early warning of leakage.

Malfunctions, bungling and cluelessness seem to be ongoing themes at Fukushima. Sometimes it's a radioactive cloud of steam rising from the ruined reactors; another time it's a leak plugged with nothing more than a bit of tape. Then there is the radioactive water -- it's difficult to gauge just how much -- that has already entered the groundwater and flowed into the ocean, something TEPCO until recently insistently denied. TEPCO president Hirose has now also apologized for the radiation that has affected fish off the coast near Fukushima.

Now, the Japanese government is providing funding for a number of more creative measures meant to turn things around at Fukushima. One plan involves a steel barrier erected between the plant and the ocean to stop radioactive water from flowing into the sea.

TEPCO also plans, by 2015, to freeze the ground around the entire reactor complex, creating a subterranean ring of permafrost with a circumference of 1.4 kilometers (0.9 miles) to prevent groundwater near the surface from seeping into the ruined complex and becoming contaminated, as it currently does. This technology has been used in mining, but has never been applied on this scale or as a long-term measure meant to last for years.
As for the contents of the 1,000 radioactive storage tanks, there is only one long-term solution -- the contaminated water must be cleaned, and then emptied into the ocean. It is possible to a large extent to filter out the cesium and strontium. The tritium, although somewhat less of a concern, can't be filtered out. Little by little, the Japanese public is being prepared for the coming release of this water -- much to the horror of fishermen.

TEPCO recently completed a large filtration facility, but even that did little to increase confidence in the company's crisis management abilities -- hardly had the facility gone into operation before it was off-line again, having begun to rust and spring leaks.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP-Fukushima Disaster Photo