Government banking on uncertain technologies to resolve Fukushima water crisis

September 04, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

The government on Sept. 3 failed to allocate funding to resolve the immediate challenge of leaking radioactive water at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, although it pledged taxpayer money on unproven technologies that will take a few years to implement.

"The whole world is watching to see if we will be able to decommission the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, including if we can cope with the problem of radioactive water there," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a meeting of the government's Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters on Sept. 3. "My government will work as one to resolve the issue."

Despite the prime minister's enthusiasm, the government has set forth no plan to pay for replacing storage tanks of the flange type, which utilize steel sheets connected with bolts, for holding radioactive water on the grounds of the crippled plant.

One of those flange-type tanks, which account for approximately 350 of the 1,000 storage tanks on site, was found in mid-August to have leaked 300 tons of radioactive water.

"We will consider the matter in the future," was the only response given by an official of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy to a question at a Sept. 3 news conference why no funds were being earmarked to immediately deal with the problem.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator, said it will replace those tanks with storage tanks that have steel sheets welded together, which are believed to be more waterproof, and step up patrols inspecting the tanks.

However, 47 billion yen ($472 million) in taxpayer money will be poured into longer-term measures based on new and unproven technologies.

Specifically, the government plans to spend 32 billion yen to build a frozen soil wall to block out water, and an additional 15 billion yen to develop an upgraded version of the Alps water decontamination system, a multi-nuclide removal equipment that has been halted during trial runs.

The water-blocking wall will comprise 1,400 meters of frozen earth that will surround and isolate the soil near the hobbled No. 1 to No. 4 reactors. The wall is intended to block the flow of groundwater into the reactor and turbine buildings, and thereby curb the increase in the growing tonnage of radioactive water at the plant.

TEPCO initially hoped to have the wall operational in the first half of 2015, but the government has moved that timetable up to be completed by the end of fiscal 2014.

Frozen soil wall technology has only been used on a temporary basis, including to block water gushing out at tunnel construction sites, but nowhere in the world has that been used on such a large scale and such a long term as envisaged at the Fukushima nuclear plant, sources said.

The initial plans would have a general contractor conduct reduced-scale experiments and determine by year-end if full-scale construction could be started.

Asked about the abrupt announcement to move that schedule forward, an official with the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy only said it represents the government's "willingness" to make that happen.

The government package also includes a plan to fund the development of a new purifier for removing radioactive substances from highly contaminated water.

The existing Alps system has yet to enter full operation. The equipment, designed to remove 62 types of radioactive materials, has been put on hold in the midst of trial runs after workers spotted corrosion holes in one of its storage tanks.

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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The Asahi Shimbun

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  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a meeting of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters on Sept. 3. (Shogo Koshida)
  • Storage tanks for radioactive water are seen on the grounds of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. (Soichiro Yamamoto)

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