The battle to clean up Fukushima

All eyes are on Japan as it struggles to clean up the damaged nuclear facility.

Members of a Fukushima prefecture panel inspect the construction site of a shore barrier near the No.1 and No.2 reactor building of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

After what seemed like a never-ending series of bad news coming out from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in recent weeks, the Japanese government is finally stepping in to take charge of clean-up operations at the damaged facility. 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “The world is closely watching whether we can dismantle the plant, including the issue of contaminated water”.

He’s right.

It’s been one embarrassing revelation after another, all laying bare the fact that containing radiation coming from the plant was perhaps too big an operation for Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, to deal with on its own.

The most recent disclosure came over the weekend, when it emerged that radiation levels, near a tank holding highly contaminated water that had been used to cool the melted nuclear fuel, was 18 times higher than originally reported.

The previous readings were wrong because the devices being used could only record radiation levels of up to a 100 millisieverts an hour. A TEPCO spokesperson told us the more sophisticated devices being used now can read up to 10,000 millisieverts an hour.

It’s been more than two years since the nuclear crisis. If it took TEPCO this long to realise it did not have the right equipment to measure radiation levels, what else could it be getting wrong?

Well, it admitted last month that as much as 300 tonnes of groundwater, that flows around and beneath the plant and becomes contaminated in the process, is flowing into the ocean daily. And then came the news that as much as 300 tonnes of radioactive water held in a storage tank had leaked.

But the solutions the government offers are untested.

It wants to build an underground ice wall to encircle the plant, which it hopes will stop groundwater from coming into contact with the reactors, as well as prevent contaminated water from leaking into the ocean.

Nuclear experts have said decommissioning the plant could take at least 40 years.

Can the ice wall last that long? How much electricity will be needed to keep it in place? And could it withstand earthquakes and tsunamis?

The other measure deals with finding better ways to remove radioactive elements from the water that’s been used to cool the melted nuclear rods. Already, the nuclear watchdog has admitted that some of this water may have to be discharged into the ocean.

The highly radioactive water, some 330,000 tonnes, enough to fill 132 Olympic-sized swimming pools, is currently being stored in containers. But as recent incidents have shown, these containers and pipes are vulnerable to leaks.

Both projects will take time to research, build and implement.

In the meantime, around 400 tonnes of radioactive water accumulates daily.

In the words of the Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, the crisis at Fukushima “has not ended”

Follow Florence Looi on Twitter: @FlorenceLooi

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