Fukushima water leaks overwhelming utility

‘Whack-a-mole’ Tepco can’t cut it, so state steps in

Bloomberg

The government will lead “emergency measures” to combat the radioactive water leaks at the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, wresting control of the disaster recovery from the besieged Tokyo Electric Power Co.

“We’ve allowed Tepco to deal with the contaminated water situation on its own and they’ve essentially turned it into a game of ‘whack-a-mole,’ ” Industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Monday night in Fukushima. “From now on, the government will move to the forefront.”

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which is led by Motegi, “is working to draw up, sometime in September, both emergency measures and more fundamental steps to eliminate the roots of the contaminated water problem, as well as measures to be carried out going forward,” the prime minister’s office said in a response to written questions.

More than two years after the March 2011 nuclear disaster started, Tepco’s recovery effort has taken a turn for the worse. The Nuclear Regulation Authority last week questioned the utility’s ability to deal with the crisis, echoing comments earlier in the month by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Motegi’s visit to the plant comes a week after a storage tank leaked 300 tons of highly radioactive water, which the NRA labeled a “serious incident” in its worst assessment of the problems at Fukushima since the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 caused three reactor meltdowns.

It’s now up to the government to manage the radioactive water building up in tanks at the plant at a rate of 400 tons a day, and leaking from underground tunnels into the ocean, Motegi said.

He told Tepco to monitor its storage tanks more frequently and replace the type that leaked.

“Mr. Motegi said that this leak was caused by human error,” Tepco President Naomi Hirose said in a separate news conference Monday night in Fukushima. “We are very grateful that we are getting government support.”

In its response to questions, the prime minister’s office said METI will pump more “liquid glass” or sodium silicate into the ground as one measure to block radioactive groundwater from spreading and reaching the sea.

In addition to the leaky tank, Tepco has admitted that radioactive groundwater is flowing into the Pacific. The government estimates the flow at 300 tons a day.

Other steps listed under the government’s emergency measures include using a subterranean bypass to stop groundwater from reaching the reactor building basements, according to the prime minister’s office.

Measures under consideration for the next one to two years include fencing off the reactor building basements with what would be the world’s longest underground “ice walls.”

These comprise coolant pipes, sunk as deep as 40 meters underground, to turn soil into permafrost. One wall would prevent water flowing from nearby mountains from coming into contact with radioactive coolant water leaking into the basements of the buildings housing the three melted reactors, the other would block radioactive water from reaching the ocean. The government is still working out how much this would cost, according to the prime minister’s office.

Tepco initially floated the sunken wall system.

Motegi also gave Tepco until mid-September to restart the advanced liquid processing system to filter radioactive isotopes out of the coolant water. ALPS was taken offline Aug. 8 due to corrosion. The loss of ALPS, one of two systems for filtering water used to cool the reactors, adds to the contamination levels of water in the plant’s storage tanks. ALPS is designed to strip out radiation such as strontium, which has been linked to bone cancer.

The tank that leaked had levels of beta radiation of 80 million becquerels per liter, including strontium, Tepco said Aug. 20. That’s 8 million times the limit for drinking water under health ministry guidelines.

There are about 350 tanks of similar design to the one that leaked. The NRA has called the danger of other tanks leaking the biggest concern at the site.