Ecocentric

Leaks, Rats and Radioactivity: Fukushima’s Nuclear Cleanup Is Faltering

The Fukushima meltdown hasn't been the public-health disaster that many critics feared, but TEPCO has struggled with the cleanup. The latest news that groundwater is becoming contaminated by the stricken reactors is one more reason why the company should not be in charge of the cleanup

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IAEA / AFP / Getty Images

Juan Carlos Lentijo, leader of the IAEA Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology, inspects the unit-four reactor building of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Japan, on April 17, 2013

Honestly, if the consequences weren’t potentially so dire, the ongoing struggles to clean up the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan would be the stuff of comedy. In March, an extended blackout disabled power to a vital cooling system for days. The cause: a rat that had apparently been chewing on cables in a switchboard. As if that’s not enough, another dead rat was found in the plant’s electrical works just a few weeks ago, which led to another blackout, albeit of a less important system. The dead rats were just the latest screwups in a series of screwups by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the owner of the Fukushima plant, that goes back to the day of March 11, 2011, when an earthquake and the resulting tsunami touched off a nuclear disaster that isn’t actually finished yet. I’m not sure things could be much worse if Wile E. Coyote were TEPCO’s CEO.

But it’s not funny, not really, because the consequences of the meltdown and TEPCO’s mismanagement are very real. The latest threat comes from nearby groundwater that is pouring into the damaged reactor buildings. Once the water reaches the reactor it becomes highly contaminated by radioactivity. TEPCO workers have to pump the water out of the reactor to avoid submerging the important cooling system — the plant’s melted reactor cores, while less dangerous than they were in the immediate aftermath of the meltdown, still needed to be further cooled down. TEPCO can’t simply dump the irradiated groundwater into the nearby sea — the public outcry would be too great — so the company has been forced to jury-rig yet another temporary solution, building hundreds of tanks, each able to hold 112 Olympic-size pools worth of liquid, to hold the groundwater. So TEPCO finds itself in a race: Can its workers build enough tanks and clear enough nearby space to store the irradiated water — water that keeps pouring into the reactor at the rate of some 75 gal. a minute? More than two years after the tsunami, TEPCO is still racing against time — and just barely staying ahead.

(MORE: Despite Fear, Health Risks From Fukushima Accident Are Minimal)

TEPCO spokesperson — there’s an unfortunate job — Masayuki Ono put it this way to the New York Times, which has reported closely on Fukushima’s troubles over the past month:

The water keeps increasing every minute, no matter whether we eat, sleep or work. It feels like we are constantly being chased, but we are doing our best to stay a step in front.

Indeed, the job has been taking its toll on the workers and on TEPCO itself, which recently announced that it lost some $7 billion in the fiscal year to March. Cash-strapped, TEPCO is struggling to make ends meet — and more to the point, the company knows that every yen it spends trying to clean up Fukushima is a yen it will never get back again, as the plant will never produce energy again. TEPCO’s struggles are hardly unique among Japan’s hard-hit utility sector — the country’s regional electricity monopolies posted a combined loss of $16 billion — but the fact that the company is still running the Fukushima cleanup seems like a worse idea with each passing day.

TEPCO argues that its workers know Fukushima best, but the performance of the company’s management hardly inspires confidence. As the groundwater debacle demonstrates, TEPCO has been making things up as it goes along since the beginning — and the Japanese government has let it. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that radioactive groundwater would be a threat — the movements of water underground are not exactly unpredictable. The Times reported that TEPCO decide not to build an underground concrete wall that could have prevent the groundwater from reaching the reactor, apparently assuming it would be able to construct a filtering system before the water became a problem. TEPCO was wrong, as it has repeatedly been. Meanwhile, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority has just a handful of inspectors to oversee the more than 3,000 workers at Fukushima.

(MORE: Independent Commission Releases Report on Fukushima Meltdown, Blames Japanese Culture)

This is a typically Japanese problem. Collusion between industry and the government helped propel the country to economic greatness after World War II, but since the crash in the early 1990s, those tight relationships have held Japan back — especially when it comes to dealing with unexpected crises like Fukushima. If ever there were a moment for letting outsiders have some say, it would be in the Fukushima cleanup — but in Japan, there are no outsiders, only the marginalized. If the price of safeguarding consensus and the cozy relationship between industry and government is a little radioactive water leaking into the Pacific Ocean, so be it. And while Japan is unique, collusion between the tightly closed nuclear industry and the government elsewhere isn’t.

(PHOTOS: Japan One Year Later: Photographs by James Nachtwey)

In the end, the damage from Fukushima — especially to human health — is still unlikely to be anywhere near as large as nuclear critics feared when the plant first melted down. Indeed, the greater threat to the health of those who lived around the plant may be psychological, as they struggle with the both the upheaval of evacuation and the social taint of living near a meltdown. But that assumes that the Fukushima area isn’t hit by another earthquake or tsunami before the cleanup is finally completed, likely years from now. “The Fukushima Daiichi plant remains in an unstable condition, and there is concern that we cannot prevent another accident,” Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said in a news conference in early April. Not so funny after all.

MORE: Nuked: A Year After Fukushima, Nuclear Power Is Down — and Carbon Is Up

12 comments
KelfinPlanck
KelfinPlanck

Mark Goldes' "Aesop Institute" has engaged for many years in the very dishonest and unscrupulous practice of soliciting loans and donations under an endless series of false pretenses, that it is developing and even "prototyping" various "revolutionary breakthroughs," such as "NO FUEL ENGINES" that run on ambient heat alone - or run on "Virtual Photon Flux" - or on "Collapsing Hydrogen Orbitals" - or even on the acoustic energy of sound from a horn.

Aesop Institute's make-believe strictly ambient heat engine is ruled out by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This has been understood by physicists for at least 180 years. There is no "new science" that has ever determined such an engine to be possible.

Aesop Institute's make-believe "Virtual Photon Flux" engine is based on the idea that accessible electric power "is everywhere present in unlimited quantities" - which we know to be false.

Aesop Institute's make-believe "Collapsing Hydrogen Orbital" engine is based on Randell Mills' theory of "hydrino" hydrogen, which every scientist knows to be false.

Aesop Institute's make-believe horn-powered engine is based on the pretense that a magnetized tuning rod could somehow "multiply energy" - a ludicrous notion, which is obviously ruled out by the law of conservation of energy.

Aesop Institute's very latest make-believe engine is a perpetual motion machine in the form of a self-powered air compressor, which uses a turbine to compress air to spin the turbine to compress air to spin the turbine.

Aesop Institute has never offered the slightest shadow of evidence that it is actually developing or "prototyping" any of these make-believe physics-defying "revolutionary breakthroughs." All it has ever offered are mere declarations that it is doing so - unsupported by any proof whatever, of any kind whatever.

There are no "revolutionary breakthroughs" to be found on Goldes' fraudulent "Aesop Institute" website. There is only pseudoscience, relentless flimflam, and empty claims of engines that are ruled out by the laws of physics.

http://physicsreviewboard.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/perpetual-flimflam-machine-mark-goldes-fraudulent-aesop-institute/

KelfinPlanck
KelfinPlanck

Mark Goldes' latest adventure in flimflam is to declare that a "FUEL-FREE TURBINE invented by a Russian scientist runs on atmospheric pressure."

But when we read the patent application, we find that actually the turbine does NOT run on atmospheric pressure - it requires compressed air. This is clearly indicated even in the article by Kondrashov posted by Goldes on his flimflam website. Kondrashov says:

"To create a sample of such an engine, you can use ready-made devices, such as a load-bearing element - a low-power turbine module turboshaft turbine engine, and to compress the air... any type of compressor..."

Kondrashov filed his patent application in 2003. No patent was awarded.

Mark Goldes assures us in his note prefacing Kondrashov's article that "We understand the science behind this jet engine." But since he incorrectly describes it as an engine powered by "atmospheric pressure" - which it certainly is not - in fact he shows that he doesn't even understand that the engine requires a supply of compressed air in order to spin at all.

Although Kondrashov does pretend in some of his statements that the turbine will be powered by "atmospheric pressure," in fact it is evident from his application that the proposed turbine is made to spin only by the use of compressed air.

In his patent application, Kondrashov states:

"To set the above engine in operation, it is necessary to create pressure of working medium (e.g. air) in pneumatic accumulator 18. The compressed air is fed through check valve 19 and/or 20."

Thus, Kondrashov indicates that an external compressor must be used to fill the turbine's compressed air tank before the turbine can be started. But he tries to pretend that once the turbine starts to spin, there will be no further reliance on the external compressor - the spinning turbine itself will compress the air that is making the turbine spin. So despite his own false description of the turbine as making use of "low-grade atmospheric energy," what Kondrashov actually presents in his patent application is a perpetual motion machine in the form of a self-powered air compressor. This is probably the reason why no patent was awarded. It is exactly analogous to trying to use a generator to power a motor to spin the generator to power the motor to spin the generator. It doesn't work.

PaulBedichek
PaulBedichek

Without nuclear power Japan and Germany will kill more of it's citizens with fossil fuel use to say nothing of warming the climate and raising sea levels. Germany has spent billions on renewables and it's emissions  are going up because they have to build coal plants that will pollute for decades. Japan had the worse case scenario and the only people to die were two workers from the hydrogen explosion,90% of the displaced people could safely move back to their houses. This should give you a hint as to how well nuclear power can manufacture hydrogen for an emission free world.People against nuclear power are disdainful of religion but have unfounded fears of the unseen ; hypocrites .

gcowan49
gcowan49

Japan's government is greatly profiting from the enforced switch to imported natural gas, petroleum, and coal. If this were not so, it probably would allow TEPCO to let the water into the ocean, since the radioactivity has greatly declined in the two years since the tsunami, and even back then, when much dirtier water was released, its radioactivity amounted to about a millionth of what's naturally in the ocean.

"And while Japan is unique, collusion between the tightly closed nuclear industry and the government elsewhere isn’t" -- the industry is not, of course, tightly closed, and the "collusion" is between an industry and a competitor to that industry with power to regulate it.

MarkGoldes
MarkGoldes

This is the top threat to all our lives.

Urgent White House help to Japan must have the highest priority.

See http://www.aesopinstitute.org

Note the green energy alternatives being born.

Scroll down a few pages for a few things you might do…

 

HangedBigD
HangedBigD

We need to start investing more into clean energy and stop the madness that is nuclear power before it kills us all.

JNoble
JNoble

Good article, Bryan. You should have a word with your copy editor about the difference between jury-rigging and jerry-rigging.

mahendrantgt
mahendrantgt

Nuclear energy is not CLEAN energy - and the way of generating electricity from nuclear source is not effective and a viable option.

Humans and NATURE are at a great loss because of all the polluting factors of nuclear energy. Governments all around the world should realize this and look for ways to generate energy through renewable sources and STOP playing with nature.

Germany and switzerland are vastly reducing their carbon foot print through government mandates - their impressive energy revolution video is in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lcgGs3UUg4

ElpTique
ElpTique

You just like to say things because they sound good to your ears.

1. Lots of religious people ARE against nuclear power because of its huge detrimental effect on human health and because it is incredibly unfair toward future generations!!!

2. What you are saying about Germany betrays total lack of knowledge of their energy sector. Germany is leading the way (SMA anyone?) in Solar energy and all renewables and can easily phase out its nuclear power plants as planned. The same can be true of any power plant.

3. There is a simple equation to be made: Solar = Electricity = Hydrogen = Electricity. Read up, you'll learn something.

4. 9 million people have died directly because of Chernobyl. Search Alexey Yablokov and you will see a real, on the ground, unbiased and truly scientific report. I have seen way too many of my friends in Europe dieing of the worst cancers (bone, thiroid, breast) all in the Chernobyl generation.

GOD gave us the sun. Use it!

MarkGoldes
MarkGoldes

@PaulBedichek  

There is an energy revolution being born that will supersede the need for fossil and radioactive fuels far faster than might be readily believed. 

 See www.aesopinstitute.com for a few examples pf breakthrough technologies in the birth canal.