by: David Gutierrez
On May 1, a worker at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant discovered a storage tank leaking radioactive water, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced the following day.
In March 2011, a major earthquake and tsunami triggered three separate meltdowns at the Fukushima plant. Large quantities of water have been rendered radioactive from being used to cool the crippled reactors. In addition, groundwater has been leaking into the basements of the reactors, mixing with contaminated water there and also becoming radioactive. TEPCO has been frantically pumping this water out and concentrating it into onsite storage tanks in an effort to minimize how much radioactive water spreads beyond the plant as groundwater.
The leak was found on the same day that TEPCO resumed tests for its beleaguered plans to construct a nearly mile-long “ice wall” of frozen soil to prevent more groundwater from infiltrating into the plant.
Second leak in weeks
The leaking tank was discovered when the worker noticed a wet patch just three inches wide next to it. The ground at that spot tested at 70 microsieverts per hour of beta-ray-emitting radioactivity; this is more than 600 times the 0.11 microsieverts per hour of maximum recommended exposure.
Workers piled sandbags around the tank to keep the leak from spreading, TEPCO said.
The leak was the second one reported in the last few weeks. In late April, a still-unexplained power outage caused water transfer pumps at the plant to shut down. The pumps were being used to move radioactive water from one drainage channel into another after it was revealed that water had been spilling from the first channel directly into the Pacific Ocean. When the power to the plants shut down, radioactive water resumed flowing into the sea. Approximately 100 tons of contaminated water — also exceeding the legal limit — are estimated to have escaped before power was re-established.
Cleanup could still be centuries away
More than four years after the Fukushima disaster, 70,000 people are still unable to return to their homes due to high levels of radioactive contamination. The local agricultural economy has been devastated.
Meanwhile, TEPCO’s efforts to clean up the plant are plagued with failures and missteps. Radiation levels inside the failed reactors are still so high that scientists believe that any human entering would die almost instantly.
As a result, TEPCO has struggled to find ways to locate the reactors’ radioactive fuel rods, let alone remove them. These problems caused the company to announce last year that removal of the fuel would not begin until 2025, five years earlier than previously announced. The company expects the full cleanup to take 40 years, though the head of the plant has admitted that the technology for the cleanup does not actually exist and may not come into existence for centuries.
An example of this technological limitation was seen in late April, when a high-tech robot designed to withstand high levels of radiation died just three hour into its mission.
The “transformer” robot, a snake-like device designed to be able to change its shape to adapt to its surroundings, was supposed to be able to withstand the heat and radiation levels inside the reactor for ten hours.
Following the device’s failure, TEPCO announced that it was severing the cables used to control the robot and postponing its plans for robotic inspection of the reactors.
“Radiation levels in these structures is higher, and working inside them is problematic,” said TEPCO adviser Dale Klein, a former chairman of the U.S. nuclear regulatory commission. “This is a challenge that has never been faced before.”
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