I have hesitated to write more on the condition and challenges of the Fukushima Nuclear site that was damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami for a few reasons; frustration, complexity, fear and yes, denial. However, a pleading e-mail from my typically logical, and cool-headed brother has motivated me again. The task list for TEPCO and the Japanese government is lengthy and complicated. Before they can even begin the unchartered path of normal decommissioning, they must first go where no man has gone before. Their first goal is to maintain a stable enough environment just to prevent an unthinkable disaster. This includes the cumbersome chore of keeping the spent fuel rods cool.
Problem # 1- Water Leakage
A leak here, a leak there
Not unlike the ‘Whack-a-mole’ game found in arcades, where the goal is to hammer down a mole as it pops its head up, only to have another one pop up in another location, repeating this over and over until your time, money and/or energy runs out. So has it been with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The damaged pools holding the spent fuel rods need an endless source of water to keep them cool. The water then becomes contaminated. While it is well known that much of that water has ‘flowed’ into the ocean, a concerted effort is being made to store the contaminated water in containers. The containers are being filled as fast as they can make them. For the last couple of months the nightly news has reported one container after another leaking radiated water. As soon as they try to patch up one problem another one starts leaking, with no end in sight. Prime Minister Abe has asked for the world for help in this matter, signifying a sure lack of confidence.
Problem #2- Moving the rods to a safer structure
The Crane Game
The latest and scariest news is that the watch dog regulating commission has given the go-ahead on October 30th to start the process to remove over 1300 spent fuel rods and 200 unused fuel rods from the number 4 storage unit and place them in a more secure location. This process is expecting to take over a year to accomplish. The problem is the sensitivity around moving the rods. The hydrogen explosion that occurred after the 2011 earthquake caused scraps to be disbursed within the number 4 unit. Safely removing these 1500 rods without scraping against debris, damaging more of the structure or still worse, breaking or dropping one of them is of grave concern of specialists. Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority warned TEPCO in a press conference,
“Handling spent fuels involves huge risks. It would be a disaster if radioactive materials comes out of the metal rods during the work,” he said, noting that with the pool containing debris from the original explosion, the rods could be damaged as pulled out. “They must be handled one by one,” he said.
In order to accomplish this there are many hurdles and challenges. They will be using brand new cranes and equipment as the original equipment was destroyed. TEPCO will need to somehow create and maintain massive amounts of permafrost surrounding unit number four. This will require an incredible amount of energy and technology to keep the area frozen. More and more trained workers will be needed. This has been an ongoing problem and is increasingly getting harder and harder to find and keep enough qualified, willing workers. And finally, the growing amount of radioactive waste will need to be stored and maintained. The renown Canadian scientist, David Suzuki explains that an international team of experts needs to go into the Fukushima plant and help fix the problem. He goes on to say,
“I have seen a paper which says that if in fact the fourth plant goes under in an earthquake and those rods are exposed, it’s bye bye Japan and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate[.]”
After viewing the simulated procedure on a special report and hearing the interviews, it is clear that no one is boasting confidence. What is sure is that the transfer of the rods need to be done sooner than later. If this action is not completed before the next large earthquake hits, it is expected to be disastrous, on a scale we have not known. Echoing Suzuki’s claim, this is an issue worthy of the global communities full attention and assistance. Japan seems to be trying to handle it alone. It would be nice to have a global coalition as eager to cooperate as often happens when military action is needed elsewhere in the world.