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October 20, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Japanese get anti-radiation pills ahead of nuclear restart

Tokyo (AFP) – Japanese officials are handing out radiation-blocking iodine tablets to people living in the shadow of two nuclear reactors slated to restart this year, underscoring concerns about atomic power after the Fukushima crisis.

The move to distribute the pills — which help to reduce radiation buildup in the body — started Sunday for those living within a five-kilometre (three-mile) radius of the Sendai nuclear plant.

The site, roughly 1,000 kilometres from Tokyo on the southern island of Kyushu, recently cleared new safety standards and could start operations in a few months.

It comes despite vocal opposition to the plan, three years after the worst atomic crisis in a generation.

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority said earlier this month that two atomic reactors at the Sendai plant were safe enough to switch back on, marking a big step towards restarting nuclear plants which were shuttered after Fukushima.

Officials in Satsumasendai city and the Kagoshima prefecture said they were handing out iodine tablets to about 4,700 people in the area, some as young as three years old.

Several dozen people have refused the free pills, which were part of stricter central government guidelines aimed at preparing for another accident.

The pills are used to protect the human thyroid gland in the event of airborne radiation, although there is some debate about their effectiveness.

“The affected residents came to five designated locations yesterday to pick up the tablets,” a Kagoshima prefecture official said Monday.

“The central government has guidelines for distributing iodine pills and we asked the affected residents to keep them in easy to remember places, such as medicine cabinets,” he added.

Despite the likely restart of the two Sendai reactors in the autumn, switching on dozens more reactors could prove to be a major challenge for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe has been trying to persuade a wary public that the world’s third largest economy must return to an energy source which once supplied more than a quarter of its power.

Widespread anti-nuclear sentiment has simmered in Japan ever since a quake-sparked tsunami in March 2011 slammed into the Fukushima power plant and sent reactors into meltdown — the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl.

The area remains a no-go zone and cleaning up the crippled site could take decades. Tens of thousands of area residents may never be able to return to their homes near the plant.

Continued here:  

Japanese get anti-radiation pills ahead of nuclear restart