Julie Makinen and Ralph Vartabedian Reporting from Tokyo and Los Angeles
For nearly four weeks, Japanese emergency crews have been spraying water on the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, a desperate attempt to avert the calamity of a full meltdown.
Now, that improvised solution to one nuclear nightmare is spawning another: what to do with the millions of gallons of water that has become highly radioactive as it washes through the plant.
The water being used to try to cool the reactors and the dangerous spent fuel rods is leaking through fissures inside the plant, seeping down through tunnels and passageways to the lowest levels, where it is accumulating into a sea of lethal waste.
No one is sure how to get rid of it safely.
"There is nothing like this, on this scale, that we have ever attempted to do before," says Robert Alvarez, a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Energy Department.
Japanese officials estimate that they already have accumulated about 15 million gallons of highly radioactive water. Hundreds of thousands of gallons are being added every day as the plant's operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., continues to feed coolant into the leaky structures.
Ultimately, the high-level radioactive substances in the water will have to be safely stored, processed and solidified, a job that experts say will almost certainly have to be handled on a specially designed industrial complex. The process of cleaning up the water could take many years, even decades, to complete. The cost could run into the tens of billions of dollars.
Victor Gilinsky, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and longtime advisor on nuclear waste, said the problems facing Japan are greater than even the most highly contaminated nuclear weapons site in the U.S., the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state.
The Department of Energy is decommissioning eight reactors at Hanford and plans to process about 58 million gallons of radioactive sludge now in leaky underground tanks, all at an estimated cost of $100 billion to $130 billion, according to outside estimates. But unlike Fukushima Daiichi, none of the Hanford reactors melted down and virtually all of the site is accessible to workers without risking exposure to dangerous levels of radioactivity.
"It will be a big job, bigger than Hanford," Gilinsky said, though he cautioned that U.S. costs are unnecessarily high and that the Japanese may be able to do the work more economically.
The immediate problem facing the Japanese is how to store all that water until the reactors and the spent fuel pools are brought under control. The plant's main storage tanks are nearly full. To make room, Tokyo Electric Power, known as Tepco, released a couple of million gallons of the least contaminated water into the ocean this week, with the expectation that its radioactive elements would be diluted in the ocean's mass.
But international law forbids Japan from dumping contaminated water into the ocean if there are viable technical solutions available down the road.
So Tepco is considering bringing in barges and tanks, including a "megafloat" that can hold about 2.5 million gallons. Japan has also reportedly asked Russia to send a floating radiation treatment plant called the Suzuran that was used to decommission Russian nuclear submarines in the Pacific port of Vladivostok. The Suzuran was built in Japan a decade ago.
Yet even using barges and tanks to temporarily handle the water creates a future problem of how to dispose of the contaminated vessels.
U.S. and Japanese experts say the key to solving the disposal problem involves reducing the volume of water by concentrating the radioactive elements so they can be solidified into a safer, dry form. But waste experts disagree on exactly how to do that.
The difficulty of concentrating and then solidifying the contaminants depends on how much radioactivity is in the water, the type of isotopes and whether the work can be done on the Fukushima site.
UC Berkeley nuclear engineering professor Edward Morse said the water needs to be diverted into a concrete-lined holding pond fairly soon, where natural evaporation can help reduce its volume.
Youichi Enokida, a specialist in nuclear chemical engineering at Nagoya University in Japan, agrees that the material should be put into some type of storage that would concentrate it through evaporation, though Japanese experts generally talk about the need for a sealed pool.
"We must concentrate the liquid," he said.
Even with a pond, it could take up to 10 years before the radioactivity would decay enough for the material to be handled, Morse said. Building a storage pond "buys you time," he said.
But other experts sharply disagree, saying exposing the material to open air could allow radioactive iodine and other volatile substances to blow off the site, adding to the remote contamination that is already spreading dozens of miles from the plant.
A factor that could vastly complicate the problem is the presence of tritium, or heavy water, which is produced during fission. Tritium cannot be filtered out of water, instead requiring an extremely expensive treatment process.
"If the contaminated water has relatively high tritium or tritiated water concentration, then treatment could be more complicated," said Joonhong Ahn, a nuclear waste expert at UC Berkeley.
Nuclear power plants normally have systems in place to treat tritium on site. But the condition and capacity of the Fukushima system is not known.
Enokida and Morse contend that if the water can be concentrated, it can then be put into dry form or even turned into glass, as is planned at Hanford and other contaminated sites around the world. But this process, called vitrification, is expensive and requires a small-scale industrial facility.
The alternative — processing the waste elsewhere in Japan — is likely to be controversial.
"The fishermen will protest; this is inevitable," Enokida said.
Morse said that the plant faces at least six months of emergency stabilization, about two years of temporary remediation and anywhere from two years to 30 years of full-scale cleanup. Furthermore, the high levels of ground contamination at the site are raising concerns about the viability of people working at the site in coming decades.
It will take hundreds or even thousands of workers years or decades to handle the cleanup, experts said.
U.S. officials have not yet discussed the water management problems with their Japanese counterparts. But Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Scott Burnell said the nuclear industry has a long experience with filtering radioactive contamination out of water, though never at a plant that has suffered such damage. At Three Mile Island it was decided to allow the tritium-contaminated water to evaporate, though that meant the tritium escaped as well.
At some point, however, Japan will have to add facilities to existing treatment plants in order to vitrify the radioactive material into glass logs or other dry forms that could be stored in alloy canisters. Those logs or canisters would have to be buried somewhere.
Where that burial ground is built is a question that the Japanese are only beginning to consider.
Makinen reported from Tokyo and Vartabedian from Los Angeles.
Devastating Effects to Environment Due to Japan's Radiation Leaks
By Jamie Epstein
Today, the operator at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant said that it has found traces of radioactive iodine that is a staggering 7.5 million times the legal limit. This sample of seawater was taken from right near the facility, forcing the Japanese government to begin a health limit for radioactivity in fish.
Radiation can cause many harsh consequences to any form of life—whether it be human, plants or animals. The high levels of radiation we are seeing in these first few seawater samples are unfortunately more than likely just the beginning.
Radiation can damage living things not just at a cellular level, but on a genetic level as well. In rare cases, damaged cells can repair themselves, but in most situations once the damage happens—it cannot be reversed. Genetic damage can be catastrophic as the radiation can damage a cell's DNA so bad, that it will result in a cellular mutation that can lead to various forms of cancer.
The consequences to seeds from radiation can cause damage which can completely stop them from sprouting and germinating, completely altering or in most situation halting plants from reproducing all together. Just like with humans, radiation can cause genetic mutations in growing plants which can make surviving virtually impossible.
Genetic changes in the cells of animals force cells to grow in abnormal ways. Levels of radiation can cause damage to capillaries and small blood vessels, and can lead to such extremes as heart failure or brain aneurysms. Because radiation usually is compounded by intense heat, exposure to extremely high levels of radiation can often "cook" an animal. A type of radiation called microwave radiation can actually cause an animal to "cook" from the inside out.
According to Ehow.com, all radioactive material decays over time but how long this time frame is depends on what type of material it is that has been leaked. For example: Strontium-90 is only radioactive for 53 days., Uranium-235 in the environment will remain radioactive for over 700 million years, Uranium-238 will remain radioactive for 4.5 billion years, and Rubidium remains radioactive for 47 million years.
China concerned by Japan's nuclear water discharge into ocean
China on Friday expressed concern over Japan's discharge of contaminated water from an earthquake- and tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant into the ocean.
'As Japan's neighbor, we are naturally concerned about the situation,' Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. 'We hope Japan acts in accordance with international law and takes practical measures to protect the oceanic environment.'
Japan dumped 11,500 tons of radioactive water this week into the Pacific Ocean as it tries to stabilize the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 250 kilometres north-east of Tokyo. Partial meltdowns, explosions, fires and releases of radiation have occurred at the plant since the March 11 disaster.
'China is closely watching the development of the situation and at the same time carrying out an expert assessment,' Hong said. 'We will stay in close contact with Japan regarding the situation. We ask Japan to timely and comprehensively provide us with up-to-date information concerning the situation.'
Why Didn't Japan Tell Korea of Nuclear Waste Plans?
The Japanese government neither consulted nor informed Korea about a plan to discharge some 10,000 tons of contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea. Yet according to Japan's TBS Television on Tuesday, Tokyo discussed the matter with the United States in advance and they agreed that it is feasible to dump water tainted with low levels of radioactivity into the sea rather than storing it unless there are other options available.
Tokyo also told the International Atomic Energy Agency of the decision in conformity with the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution, but it did not tell individual neighboring countries because the water was discharged on the Pacific side. That at least is the explanation offered by Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano in a press conference Tuesday after Tokyo's silence raised eyebrows in the region.
Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto told reporters separately the dumping does not violate the 1986 Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident, which obligates nations to provide data such as the accident's time, location and radiation releases to affected states "when harmful trans-boundary radiation release is feared."
But Korea has already detected small levels of radiation linked to the stricken plant, and even Japan's own maritime pollution prevention act stipulates that Tokyo should consult with countries that could be affected when it decides to dump harmful materials into the sea. It is common sense for Tokyo to notify Seoul because seawater from the Pacific side is borne by currents to the East Sea.
Even in Japan itself some feel they could have been given more information. Japanese Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Michihiko Kano said it is "very regrettable that Tokyo Electric Power Company has released radioactive water into the sea without telling" the ministry. Fishermen in the nearby areas protested because they are worried about their catch.
"It stands to reason that Korea should be given more accurate information since it imports Japanese agricultural and fisheries products," a diplomatic source in Tokyo said. "It seems Japan is trying to downplay the scale of the disaster by keeping a lid on information."
Meanwhile, contamination was worsening Tuesday in the sea near the Fukushima plant, with iodine-131 detected in coastal waters at 7.5 million times above normal. Contamination fears have led to a sharp drop in seafood consumption in Japan.
EDITORIAL: Kan owes world explanation for pumping radioactive water in sea
The government's decision to pump radioactive water out of the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant into the ocean was far too grave to be explained simply as "unavoidable."
We saw little indication of the administration's dilemma over it. Moreover, the administration did an appallingly sloppy job of explaining its decision to the nation as well as the rest of the world.
Work has begun at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to pump out low-level radioactive water into the ocean. The stated purpose of this exercise is to "prevent greater damage" by getting rid of low-level radioactive water to secure space for storage and containment of high-level radioactive water at the plant.
But under normal circumstances, resorting to such a measure would be simply out of the question.
Tokyo condemned Moscow in the past, when Russia dumped into the Sea of Japan low-level nuclear waste generated at a nuclear submarine base. And Japan supported the revision of the "London Convention," which was aimed at preventing maritime pollution and the dumping of waste, and later amended to include low-radioactive waste in the list of banned substances.
This is all the more reason why the Japanese government definitely owes the international community a detailed explanation of how it reached its latest decision and what further measures it intends to take.
Japan has deeply offended its neighbor, South Korea, by not consulting with it beforehand.
But more to the point, the government was too insensitive to the international community's growing concerns about the unfolding nuclear crisis in Fukushima.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan and others should have called an immediate news conference and explained in detail the circumstances and the reasons that led to the decision.
With any hope of an early containment of the nuclear crisis now gone, the Kan administration's crisis management ability is being severely tested.
The prime minister's job is to expect every contingency, double- and triple-check the soundness of his plans, provide speedy and accurate information to the nation and the rest of the world, and establish a comprehensive strategy to ensure that all available resources are put to effective use.
Reportedly, the idea of pumping contaminated water from the Fukushina plant into the ocean was suggested by Tokyo Electric Power Co., and the government decided to proceed with it after consulting the Nuclear Safety Commission.
Was the final decision reached after every possible option had been examined thoroughly? The nuclear emergency response headquarters is headed by Kan, and the government and TEPCO have formed an ad hoc joint headquarters to deal with the crisis. Did all the members concerned share and examine carefully their expert opinions?
The opinions of on-site personnel matter a lot, but our impression is that the government took a back seat even though it is ultimately responsible for a decision of this magnitude. From what we understand, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano left it to TEPCO to provide a detailed plan of action, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which overseas the fishing industry, was left completely out of the loop.
And the support system of nuclear experts to assist the administration is not adquate. Besides government organs, there should also be businesses, universities and public research institutes--such as the Japan Atomic Energy Agency and the National Institute of Radiological Sciences--participating actively in a comprehensive support system.
But the Nuclear Safety Commission should still occupy center stage. The commission's presence has been dimmed since the accident at the Fukushima plant, but it must live up to its intended role as the nation's nuclear safety watchdog.
--The Asahi Shimbun
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