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November 18, 2018

Japan's nuclear cleanup stymied by water woes

OKUMA, Japan (AP) — More than three years into the massive cleanup of Japan’s tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant, only a tiny fraction of the workers are focused on key tasks such as preparing for the dismantling of the broken reactors and removing radioactive fuel rods.

Instead, nearly all the workers at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant are devoted to an enormously distracting problem: a still-growing amount of contaminated water used to keep the damaged reactors from overheating. The amount has been swelled further by groundwater entering the reactor buildings.

Hundreds of huge blue and gray tanks to store the radioactive water, and buildings holding water treatment equipment are rapidly taking over the plant, where the cores of three reactors melted following a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Workers were building more tanks during a visit to the complex Wednesday by foreign media, including The Associated Press.

“The contaminated water is a most pressing issue that we must tackle. There is no doubt about that,” said Akira Ono, head of the plant. “Our effort to mitigate the problem is at its peak now. Though I cannot say exactly when, I hope things start getting better when the measures start taking effect.”

The numbers tell the story.

___

6,000 WORKERS

Every day, about 6,000 workers pass through the guarded gate of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant on the Pacific coast — two to three times more than when it was actually producing electricity.

On a recent work day, about 100 workers were dismantling a makeshift roof over one of the reactor buildings, and about a dozen others were removing fuel rods from a cooling pool. Most of the rest were dealing with the contaminated water, said Tatsuhiro Yamagishi, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, the utility that owns the plant.

The work threatens to exhaust the supply of workers for other tasks, since employees must stop working when they reach annual radiation exposure limits. Experts say it is crucial to reduce the amount and radioactivity of the contaminated water to decrease the risk of exposure to workers and the environmental impact before the decommissioning work gets closer to the highly contaminated core areas.

___

40 YEARS

The plant has six reactors, three of which were offline when disaster struck on March 11, 2011. A magnitude-9.0 earthquake triggered a huge tsunami which swept into the plant and knocked out its backup power and cooling systems, leading to meltdowns at the three active reactors.

Decommissioning and dismantling all six reactors is a delicate, time-consuming process that includes removing the melted fuel from a highly radioactive environment, as well as all the extra fuel rods, which sit in cooling pools at the top of the reactor buildings. Workers must determine the exact condition of the melted fuel debris and develop remote-controlled and radiation-resistant robotics to deal with it.

Troubles and delays in preparatory stages, including the water problem and additional measures needed to address environmental and health concerns in removing highly radioactive debris from atop reactor buildings that exploded during meltdowns, have pushed back schedules on the decommissioning roadmap. Recently, officials said the government and TEPCO plan to delay the planned start of fuel removal from Units 1 and 2 by about 5 years.

The process of decommissioning the four reactors is expected to take at least 40 years.

___

500,000 TONS

The flow of underground water is doubling the amount of contaminated water and spreading it to vast areas of the compound.

Exposure to the radioactive fuel contaminates the water used to cool the melted fuel from inside, and much of it leaks and pours into the basements of the reactors and turbines, and into maintenance trenches that extend to the Pacific Ocean. Plans to freeze some of the most toxic water inside the trench near the reactors have been delayed for at least 8 months due to technical challenges.

The plant reuses some of the contaminated water for cooling after partially treating it, but the additional groundwater creates a huge excess that must be pumped out.

Currently, more than 500,000 tons of radioactive water is being stored in nearly 1,000 large tanks which now cover large areas of the sprawling plant. After a series of leaks last year, the tanks are being replaced with costlier welded ones.

That amount dwarfs the 9,000 tons of contaminated water produced during the 1979 partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the United States. At Three Mile Island, it took 14 years for the water to evaporate, said Lake Barrett, a retired U.S. nuclear regulatory official who was part of the early mitigation team there and has visited the Fukushima plant.

“This is a much more complex, much more difficult water management problem,” Barrett said.

___

10 TRILLION YEN

An estimated 2 trillion yen ($18 billion) will be needed just for decontamination and other mitigation of the water problem. Altogether, the entire decommissioning process, including compensation for area residents, reportedly will cost about 10 trillion yen, or about $90 billion.

All this for a plant that will never produce a kilowatt of energy again.

About 500 workers are digging deep holes in preparation for a taxpayer-funded 32 billion yen ($290 million) underground “frozen wall” around four reactors and their turbine buildings to try to keep the contaminated water from seeping out.

TEPCO is developing systems to try to remove most radioactive elements from the water. One, known as ALPS, has been trouble-plagued, but utility officials hope to achieve its daily capacity of 2,000 tons when they enter full operation next month following a final inspection by regulators.

Officials hope to treat all contaminated water by the end of March, but that is far from certain.

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Japan's nuclear cleanup stymied by water woes

Sandy-hit towns wrestle with eminent-domain choice

ASHAROKEN, N.Y. (AP) — On a tiny spit of land off Long Island, the wealthy village of Asharoken faces a dilemma borne of Superstorm Sandy.

Either it accepts millions of dollars in federal aid to build a protective sand dune and for the first time in its nearly 90-year existence allows the public to use its beach or it rejects the aid and retains its privacy, potentially worsening an erosion problem that saw part of its main road washed out and power lines toppled during the October 2012 storm.

But some of the 600-plus residents in the village of million-dollar homes worry opening up the area could lead to traffic problems, trespassing and more garbage.

“I think privacy, pollution and safety, these are the three main concerns,” resident Asenneth Elsin said. “I don’t have a problem sharing, but unfortunately there will be people not following the rules.”

Asharoken is just one place where the tussle among coastal protection, property rights, public access and federal funding is playing out in New York and New Jersey, both hit hard by the storm.

Much of the damage was caused by storm surge, which flooded or destroyed homes and washed out boardwalks. In some places, such as Surf City on Long Beach Island in New Jersey, dunes held off serious damage while neighboring communities without such protection were nearly wiped out.

Now there’s a movement afoot to build or replenish dunes before the next storm. After Sandy, Congress granted the Army Corps $5.3 billion to study damaged areas and for projects to build dunes, enlarge beaches and install structures to slow sand movement.

Before work can begin, though, property owners must sign agreements allowing access to parts of their property for eternity. And to get the federal funding, communities must agree to provide public routes to the funded beaches.

If they decide to keep the beaches to themselves, it’s either find a way to pay for dunes or risk getting flooded again.

New York and New Jersey officials have said they’re committed to seeing the work through, even if it means getting courts involved. They say taking property by eminent domain is a possibility.

Asharoken lies between Long Island Sound and a harbor on the narrowest part of a peninsula connecting mainland Long Island with the community of Eaton’s Neck at the tip. It has about 300 homes. Residents who don’t live on the water can buy beach-only lots, and they leave kayaks, patio sets, umbrellas and more on the property.

The Corps is studying an estimated $30 million plan to build a dune and berm and enlarge the beach. In a letter to residents, Asharoken Mayor Greg Letica said if the village didn’t accept the federal funding it would cost homeowners up to $100,000 apiece to restore the beach.

If the Corps project moves forward, Asharoken may have to take property to create public beach access and compensate homeowners. The problem: Because of its small population, it has an annual budget of just over $2 million, so Letica is asking officials to ease the public access requirement.

Asharoken is among several places in New York where the Corps is studying or building dunes.

Some structures may be demolished on Fire Island, a barrier island for Long Island that’s dotted with beachside communities and home to a national seashore, to make way for a project.

Breezy Point, a cooperative on Queens’ Rockaway Peninsula that flooded and burned during Sandy, was given a $1.2 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to study building a $57 million dune with a sea wall.

In New Jersey, 11 Corps projects are planned, but it hasn’t gotten all homeowners to sign easements.

“We’re looking to make our shores more resilient,” said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “We’re doing this for the good of the entire shore and New Jersey.”

A 14-mile dune project from Manasquan Inlet to Barnegat Inlet has some of the most holdouts, with the boroughs of Bay Head and Point Pleasant Beach accounting for nearly 200.

In Point Pleasant Beach, much of the boardwalk and beach are privately owned to the mean high-water mark, and several large businesses operate amusements there.

Jenkinson’s Boardwalk, the largest beachfront property owner, said building a dune would erase beach areas where volleyball, movies, weddings and other events are held. The owners said they don’t believe a dune would stop flooding because properties behind Jenkinson’s weren’t flooded by Sandy’s surge.

The borough has approved granting an easement on property it owns, but 69 other property owners haven’t.

“I understand their concerns, and in a perfect world we wouldn’t do this,” Mayor Vincent Barrella said. “But we don’t have that. We live in a post-Sandy world.”

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Emily C. Dooley, a Newsday reporter on leave, is studying community resilience issues, the ability of communities to bounce back from various shocks, as part of a nine-month fellowship at the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which joins NORC’s independent research and AP journalism. The fellowship is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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Sandy-hit towns wrestle with eminent-domain choice

History And Controversy Of Nuclear Power Plants

Nuclear power has always been contentious due to its very nature. Uranium creates a high burst of energy as it decays, and that energy can be captured for power use. However, it also creates a radioactive waste that must be dealt with, and the possibility of nuclear accidents shadows all of the potential good that they may do. Because of this, there have been few reactors built, and all 100 were built built between 1974 and 1977. Since then, four have been decommissioned due to age, while there have been plans to build five more to replace them. As countries look for means to replace failing petroleum reserves, nuclear power plants may be worth taking a looking at.

Three Mile Island

The possibilities of nuclear power were first debated even as early as 1938. Project Manhattan showed that there was a lot of potential power in splitting the atom for power. However, there were problems capturing that power, making it ideal at first for only weapons. There were additional issues as radiation had debuted only a few decades ago, but its effects were only starting to be really felt. Radiation was already proving to be a fickle servant, as it held tremendous power for good but also created a number of problems as well that needed to be dealt with before it could be truly useful.

History And Controversy Of Nuclear Power Plants

It was not until after World War II that the government decided to look into nuclear power as an energy source. Although radiation was being used to find and deal with diseases, it also caused them as well; exposure to radiation could lead to cancer. However, as the cost for building nuclear power plants was prohibitive, the government had problems justifying the amount. Although the private sector was approached, it was not until the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 that the private sector would even touch nuclear power. That act limited the liability companies could face for even catastrophic accidents involving nuclear power.

Three Mile Island

The Argonne National Laboratory was assigned to the United States Atomic Energy Commission to develop nuclear power. Over the next, decade 52 reactors were built for experimentation, and these would eventually lead to the building of the first nuclear power plants in the 1960s. It is worth noting that the United States Navy contributed; they wanted to take advantage of nuclear power’s ability to use limited fuel for almost unlimited duration, seeing a tactical advantage for its ships and especially its submarines.

Nonetheless, nuclear power plants did not take off until the 1970s. Between 1974 and 1979, almost all of the current reactors would be built, and only recently have any new plants gone past the planning stages. A nuclear power plant represents a massive investment, and there need to a number of safeguards in place before it can go online. Also, it needs to be built where it can get a lot of water for cooling down. It must also be a reasonable distance from any cities in case of even the slightest mishap, while at the same time, near the area it will serve. With this limitation in mind, it makes building nuclear power plants an interesting planning problem.

However, it has not been a smooth road. There have been accidents even since the beginning, although they have been mostly relatively minor. There has even been some controversy, as a proposed plant in Bodega Bay, just north of San Francisco California, was the first plant shut down due to environmental protest, which was just getting really started in the 1960s. Eventually, the environmental movement would be responsible for virtually shutting down the building of new nuclear power plants until recently.

Three Mile Island
`
It does not help that there have been problems with nuclear power plants. Almost all nuclear power plants have had some problem, however minor, and 27% of those built have had to shut down for more than a year, while most of the remainder have had to shut down at times. It does not help that nuclear power plants need to be shut down periodically for maintenance, approximately 39 days every 17 months, making them hardly reliable sources of power. Combined with the environmental issues of nuclear waste, and there is some some to doubt the management of the America nuclear program.

There have been three nuclear power plant accidents that have helped serve as rallying points that have made the public uneasy when it comes to nuclear power plants. The Three-Mile Island Power Plant suffered a mishap that while it did not result in any immediate deaths, it did increase cancer rates for years. The Chernobyl Accident, while eventually found out to be gross operator error, demonstrated that a nuclear power plant accident could be dangerous. The Fukushima Incident, although demonstrating that safety features usually worked, had enough leakage to make people cautious. Overall this creates a certain nervousness when it comes to nuclear energy.

Three Mile Island

Given all of these problems it is hardly surprising that a number of people are against nuclear power plants. However, their one saving grace also happens to one that makes them worth the debate: their power output. All of the reactors currently in operation provided 790 terawatts of power in 2011, or enough power to provide 19.2% of total energy needs of the United States. Given that people in general are trying to find ways of weaning themselves from petroleum, and that petroleum is one of the major sources of power, it is understandable that nuclear power is back on the table.

It helps that new designs for nuclear plants may eliminate a number of the maintenance problems, so that plants do not shut down completely for maintenance, and that meltdowns may be a thing of the past. Engineers have taken apart the old designs, looking for any and all possible flaws, and have rebuilt the plants with a number of new safety features. The newer plants look to have all of the safety issues of older designs solved. Even the waste issue has been addressed to at least some degree, making the new designs a lot more environmentally sound.

Nuclear has become part of the new debate over which direction to turn to as the go-to alternative. Although solar power is quickly becoming the environmental favorite, there is still some debate over whether or not nuclear power will be making a comeback in the following years. It is just a matter of making sure all bases are covered; if that can happen then nuclear power plants may just be the part of the future.

History And Controversy Of Nuclear Power Plants

History And Controversy Of Nuclear Power Plants

Google's latest project: mapping small gas leaks in US cities

Google Street View cars outfitted with special sensors have identified hundreds of small but steady methane leaks lying beneath the streets in three US cities.

The specially equipped cars drove the streets of Boston, Staten Island, and Indianapolis sniffing out minor gas leaks for a pilot mapping project in conjunction with the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund and local utility companies. EDF released the findings online Wednesday, along with a set of interactive maps.

The leaks identified by this study do not represent a safety threat but do add up to a large volume of smog-inducing, greenhouse gas emissions, EDF chief scientist Steven Hamburg told reporters during a media briefing about the pilot program Wednesday.

Recommended: Think you know the odd effects of global climate change? Take our quiz.

While utilities are federally mandated to address large gas leaks that pose hazards to property and people, smaller, chronic leaks typically fall by the wayside until the pipes can be fully replaced, Mr. Hamburg said.

“This work creates an important tool for helping to understand where the largest of these leaks are and where the dollars that are being spent to modernize and upgrade gas systems can best be utilized,” Hamburg said.

National Grid, a utility company that operates pipelines in Boston and Staten Island, plans to use the data gathered through this pilot program to prioritize replacement of aging pipelines, Susan Fleck, National Grid’s Vice President of Pipeline Safety, told reporters during the briefing.

The problem appears to be particularly pervasive in cities with aging infrastructure. In Boston and Staten Island – both of which rely on many pipes that are more than 50 years old – the sensors detected an average of one leak per every mile driven. Many cities in the Northeast rely on similarly aging infrastructures. By contrast, Indianapolis – which has invested heavily in updated natural gas pipes – yielded an average of just one leak per 200 miles driven.

For its part, Massachusetts adopted a uniform classification system for prioritizing repairs of leaks in natural gas pipelines in a new law signed by Gov. Deval Patrick (D) on July 7. The EDF report highlights this law as a point of progress in developing a process to plan and fund long-term pipeline upgrades.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that can have a short-term impact on climate up to 120 times greater than carbon dioxide, says Louis Derry, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Over the long term, however, methane is not a major factor in altering climate because it persists in the atmosphere for only 10 to 20 years, he says.

“Even if methane is not a major climate player, curbing emissions is the right thing to do because it will reduce the danger of small leaks growing into larger, more dangerous leaks and will help to improve overall air quality,” Professor Derry says. (Methane is a contributing factor in the formation of ozone and smog.)

The release of these findings in a user-friendly format could help to secure public buy-in for costly infrastructure improvements, Derry suggests.

Replacing pipelines “is expensive, nobody wants to pay for it, and nobody wants to have their street dug up,” he explains. The visualizations offered by the EDF maps could persuade the public to put up with rate increases and the nuisance of lengthy construction projects to overhaul corroding pipelines.

The most encouraging aspect of this study, Derry says, is its role as an illustration of the technological leap in sensing capabilities. Until just a few years ago, these measurements would have been collected by hand and individually processed in the laboratory, he says. Today, for about $50,000, researchers can affix a sensor capable of taking a reading every second to the roof of a car or the wing of an airplane.

“This is a highly, cost-effective way to cover large areas that just wasn’t possible a few years ago,” he says. That capability could be used to follow up in an area where pipes have been replaced to see whether the replacement was effective in curbing emissions. It could also be employed to measure other emissions such as water vapor or carbon dioxide.

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Google's latest project: mapping small gas leaks in US cities