More than two years after the 2011 meltdown disaster started, the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is facing another crisis as an estimated 300 tons of highly radioactive water reach the Pacific Ocean every day.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. on Friday finally began a full-fledged effort to slow the massive flow by pumping highly toxic groundwater out of one location. But it won’t get to two other areas for several months and estimates that it will take some two years at best to completely solve the problem.
Government officials now say the radioactive water began entering the sea at least since June, given spikes in radioactive materials in samples from a monitoring well near the coast within the plant compound.
Since the catastrophe struck, fishermen have voluntarily stopped operations off Fukushima except for sampling, as the possible impact on fish and human health remains uncertain. But the water crisis is likely to raise further concerns about local seafood and could severely harm Japan’s credibility if both Tepco and the government fail to contain the problem.
“It has now become clear that contaminated water is flowing into the sea. The current situation is extremely severe,” industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi reportedly told an expert meeting on the water crisis Thursday.
On Friday, Tepco started pumping contaminated water from a pit dug near the coast between the reactor 1 and 2 buildings. When the operation reaches its full capacity it will hopefully stop the 100 tons a day from flowing through that area. But it will take at least several months for Tepco to start pumping 200 tons per day of tainted water from two other contaminated areas near the coast.
It will also take nearly two years to set up equipment to freeze soil around the reactor buildings to create a 1.4-km-long barrier to isolate them from groundwater, government officials said.
According to Tepco, about 1,000 tons of groundwater flow from the mountainside into the compound each day.
Of that amount, 400 tons end up inside the damaged reactor buildings and 300 tons flow to the sea after being contaminated with radioactive materials from the damaged plant, mainly strontium and tritium.
The remaining 300 tons supposedly reach the Pacific uncontaminated.
The pit dug near the No. 1 monitoring well, where Tepco began pumping out water Friday, is in an area believed to be getting about 100 tons of groundwater every day.
It is believed the groundwater reaching there is becoming contaminated by water from a damaged underground cable trench nearby that is connected to a reactor turbine building.
Tepco plans to isolate the area by injecting liquid glass into the soil and building waterproof walls around the area by early October.
It plans to finish building similar waterproof walls around the other two contaminated areas along the coast by the end of November.
But a road map submitted Thursday to the government didn’t show when Tepco will start pumping water from the two areas to prevent it from going into the sea. Like the spot where pumping started Friday, about 100 tons of groundwater is believed to be flowing under each of these areas every day.
In any event, pumping out the groundwater and building waterproof shielding walls won’t prevent all contaminated water from reaching the sea, though it will considerably reduce the total amount, government officials said.
Thus, the government and Tepco now plan to use taxpayer money to create a barrier of frozen soil around reactors 1 through 4 by sinking a vast network of coolant pipes.
The method is sometimes used during construction of underground tunnels, but this project will be the largest of its kind anywhere in the world and “some new technologies” will have to be developed, according to government officials.
A setup with so much cooling equipment will also require a steady supply of electricity in vast amounts. In an extended power failure the soil would thaw.
Despite these risks, government officials say the untested freezing method is the best way for Tepco to isolate the damaged buildings.
The Natural Resources and Energy Agency will soon launch “a feasibility study” on the project, and no other methods are currently being considered, agency officials said.
Meanwhile, Tepco’s failure to report on the water problem has managed to make the overall situation worse by making it harder to dump relatively clean water into the ocean.
Tepco announced in June that it had found highly contaminated water in the monitoring well on the coast between the reactor 1 and 2 buildings. But it didn’t admit that the water is reaching the sea until July 22, one day after the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party won its landslide victory in the Upper House election.
Tepco President Naomi Hirose apologized for the delay while claiming the timing had nothing to do with the election.
Tepco has been struggling with water contamination since the start of the crisis and the critical operation to keep the broken reactors cool generates 400 tons of newly contaminated water every day.
The local fishermen, the safe image of their produce ruined, are now furious and refusing to accept any Tepco plan to dump relatively safe water into the sea from tanks that are badly needed for highly contaminated water.
Tepco has long hoped to dump the coolant water into the sea after removing the radioactive materials and diluting it with clean water to meet government safety standards.
Tepco also plans to pump clean groundwater from the mountainside near the plant before it flows into the reactor buildings.
Now the government is unable to secure the politically necessary consent of the local fishermen to carry out these plans.
“Until we first stop the flow (of contaminated water) into the sea, we would not be able to ask for consent of fishermen,” a senior official at the Natural Resources and Energy Agency said Thursday.