Ice, ice baby: You won’t believe the latest from Fukushima


The news out of Fukushima is becoming surreal, like a late summer apocalyptic fantasy at your local movie multiplex. First of all, if you’ve been following developments at the crippled Japanese nuclear plant, it won’t shock you to learn that reports of the radiation — and the risk — are getting worse every day. Think about the grossly underestimated spill estimates for the BP disaster in the Gulf, or for the ExxonMobil oil spill in Arkansas, or the fantasical gas-industry projections about the impact of fracking. This is just what they do in the world of Big Energy:

Radiation levels 18 times higher than previously reported have been found near a water storage tank at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing fresh concern about the safety of the wrecked facility.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), said radiation near the bottom of the tank measured 1,800 millisieverts an hour – high enough to kill an exposed person in four hours. Tepco said water levels inside the tank had not changed, indicating there had not been a leak. But the company said it had yet to discover the cause of the radiation spike.

Last month Tepco said another storage tank – of the same design as the container causing concern at the weekend – had leaked 300 tonnes of radioactive water, possibly into the sea.

Japan‘s nuclear watchdog confirmed last week it had raised the severity of that leak from level 1, an “anomaly”, to level 3, a “serious incident”, on an eight-point scale used by the International Atomic Energy Agency for radiological releases.

That’s alarming — and now here’s the part where it starts to sound like something from a 1950s horror flick. Scientists have concluded that their only chance to stop the flow of this highly contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean, where it can — and probably already is — wreak enormous harm to the environment.

TOKYO — The Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will spend $470 million on a subterranean ice wall and other steps in a desperate bid to stop leaks of radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear station after repeated failures by the plant’s operator.

The decision is widely seen as an attempt to show that the nuclear accident won’t be a safety concern just days before the International Olympic Committee chooses between Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid as the host of the 2020 Olympics.

How will this work?

The ice wall would freeze the ground to a depth of up to 30 meters (100 feet) through an electrical system of thin pipes carrying a coolant as cold as minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit). That would block contaminated water from escaping the facility’s immediate surroundings, as well as keep underground water from entering the reactor and turbine buildings, where much of the radioactive water has collected.

The project, which TEPCO and the government proposed in May, is being tested for feasibility by a Japanese construction giant Kajima Corp. and set for completion by March 2015.

Similar methods have been used to block water from parts of tunnels and subways, but building a 1.4 kilometer (2-mile) wall that surrounds four reactor buildings and their related facilities is unprecedented.

Unprecedented is an understatement. This technology has never been tested on such a grand scale, and there are serious questions about whether this can even work, let alone the long term costs of keeping the ice wall in place. What’s more, the wall would not even be fully erected for 18 months or so — best-case scenario — and the situation could escalate out of control by then, not to mention the nagging issue of the radioactive pollution now taking place. This all could have been avoided, or at least minimized, if TEPCO and the Japanese government had acted more forcefully in the days following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. But that’s not what Big Energy does,

To read about elevated radiation levels at Fukushima from the Guardian, go to:

To learn more about the proposed ice wall, please read:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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