There’s a building boom going on at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan where on March 11, 2011, as the coast was catastrophically flooded by an earthquake-triggered tsunami, three of the six reactors melted down.
But it’s not the kind that signals progress.
Tepco, which owns the site, has built hundreds of massive storage tanks to hold the radioactive water that is leaking from the disaster.
According to a report by Vince Beiser at Wired, the tanks contain as much as 150 tons of groundwater that percolates into the reactors through cracks in their foundations every day.
The water is contaminated with radioactive isotopes during the process, the report said.
“More than one million tons of radiation-laced water is already being kept on-site in an ever-expanding forest of hundreds of hulking steel tanks – and so far, there’s no plan to deal with them,” Beiser warned.
To contain the radiation as much as possible, Tepco “pumps it out and runs it through a massive filtering system housed in a building the size of a small aircraft hangar.”
“Inside are arrays of seven-foot tall stainless steel tubes, filled with sand grain-like particles that perform a process called ion exchange. The particles grab on to ions of cesium, strontium, and other dangerous isotopes in the water, making room for them by spitting out sodium. The highly toxic sludge created as a byproduct is stored elsewhere on the site in thousands of sealed canisters.”
The report explained there have been improvements in the filtering system since the disaster seven years ago, but none of the processes so far has been able to catch tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.
“Cesium and strontium atoms go into solution with the water, like sugar in tea; but tritium can bond with oxygen just like regular hydrogen, rendering the water molecules themselves radioactive,” the report said.
“It’s one thing to separate cesium from water, but how do you separate water from water?” John Raymont, president of Veolia’s nuclear solutions group, asked in the report.
His company has suggested a possible method, but Tepco so far has balked at the multi-billion dollar cost, the report said.
“So for now, the tritiated water is pumped into a steadily growing collection of tanks. There are already hundreds of them, and Tepco has to start building a new one every four days.”
In attempts to cut back on the number of tons, Tepco already installed a $300 million wall underground in which the ground is frozen by having tons of sub-zero brine pumped in.
That’s helped, the report said.
But all of the contaminated water can’t be stored indefinitely, Wired said.
“Some of those tanks and pipes will eventually fail. It’s inevitable,” Dale Klein, a former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told the publication.
Klein says the concentrations are low enough that the water can safely be released into the sea, Wired reported, but “the notion of dumping tons of radioactive water into the ocean is understandably a tough sell.”