It has been nearly two-and-a-half years since TEPCO decided to give its “Game of Thrones”-inspired frozen water wall a second chance, despite initially experiencing difficulty getting the temperature low enough to freeze the ground water. At the time, we questioned their sanity, but pointed out that “wasting” tens of billions of yen on the project would, at the very least, help out the region’s badly damaged GDP…
…But today, with two years before the Tokyo Games, the Japanese utility company admitted to Reuters that the costly “ice wall” (more like an ice floor, it’s essentially a ground barrier consisting of frozen soil) is failing to stop groundwater from seeping into the ruined nuclear reactors at the ruined Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
The wall’s failure, among other factors, is preventing the company from removing all of the radioactive melted fuel at the site, where one of the world’s worst-ever nuclear disasters unfolded seven years ago when a tsunami struck the area.
When the “ice wall” was announced in 2013, TEPCO assured skeptics that it would effectively limit the flow of groundwater into the plant’s basement, where the water becomes contaminated with radioactive debris.
But since the wall became fully operational in August 2017, an average of 141 metric tonnes of groundwater has seeped into the reactor and turbines each day – worse than the 132 metric tonnes a day that seeped into the ruined plant during the nine months before the wall’s completion.
That’s far from the “nearly nothing” that TEPCO executives promised.
The unplanned groundwater seepage has delayed TEPCO’s clean-up at the site, the company said, and may undermine the entire decommissioning process for the plant, which the utility is tasked with cleaning up before the 2020 Olympics, though in reality, the process will likely take decades.
Some of the 160,000 residents that were forced to flee after the disaster when the government declared an “exclusion zone” around the site are beginning to return to their former homes as the government has cut off their public assistance.
What people are finding is a ghost town overrun by radioactive boars.
As we pointed out, TEPCO’s options are apparently at an impasse: The company has lost several “swimming robots” inside the destroyed reactors. The robots were sent in to search for the melted nuclear core.
As Reuters explains, TEPCO sunk 34.5 billion yen ($324 million) in public funds into the project, which involved deploying 1,500 tubes filled with brine to a depth of 30 meters (100 feet) in a 1.5-kilometre (1-mile) perimeter around the plant’s four reactors. The plant then cools the brine to minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit). The goal is to freeze the soil into a solid mass.
What’s worse, the continuing seepage has created more toxic water that Tepco must pump out and store in cumbersome containers. The company says it will run out of space for the water by early 2021.
One nuclear regulator who spoke with Reuters said he believed the wall had been oversold..
“I believe the ice wall was ‘oversold’ in that it would solve all the release and storage concerns,” said Dale Klein, the former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the head of an external committee advising Tepco on safety issues.
“The hydrology of the Fukushima site is very complicated and thus the exact water flow is hard to predict,” he said, “especially during heavy rains.”
Depending on the level of rain, the amount of water flowing into the ruined plant can fluctuate between 83 tons during a dry month to 866 during a typhoon.
A government panel blasted the ice wall on Wednesday, saying it was only partially effective. What’s worse, the ice wall was supposed to be a crucial element of Japan’s plan to show that it has the cleanup effort under control.
The failure is bad news for area fishermen, because the government’s only other viable solution appears to be emptying tritium-laced water into the Pacific Ocean – which has angered locals, and probably should anger the international community as well.