'Flood of Highly Radioactive Wastewater' Overwhelms Fukushima Crews

Latest crisis reveals intractable nature of nuclear cleanup

Japan's battle against the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant has intensified as "a flood of highly radioactive wastewater" overwhelms emergency crews and highlights just how intractable the cleanup effort is proving.

As the New York Timesreports:

Groundwater is pouring into the plant's ravaged reactor buildings at a rate of almost 75 gallons a minute. It becomes highly contaminated there, before being pumped out to keep from swamping a critical cooling system. A small army of workers has struggled to contain the continuous flow of radioactive wastewater, relying on hulking gray and silver storage tanks sprawling over 42 acres of parking lots and lawns. The tanks hold the equivalent of 112 Olympic-size pools.

But even they are not enough to handle the tons of strontium-laced water at the plant -- a reflection of the scale of the 2011 disaster and, in critics' view, ad hoc decision making by the company that runs the plant and the regulators who oversee it. In a sign of the sheer size of the problem, the operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, plans to chop down a small forest on its southern edge to make room for hundreds more tanks, a task that became more urgent when underground pits built to handle the overflow sprang leaks in recent weeks.

"The water keeps increasing every minute, no matter whether we eat, sleep or work," said Masayuki Ono, a general manager with Tepco who acts as a company spokesman. "It feels like we are constantly being chased, but we are doing our best to stay a step in front."

Throughout the month of April, more than two years after the earthquake and tsunami that spurred the initial disaster at Fukushima, those leaks of radioactive water, as well as power outages at the plant, became a regular occurance (see here and here).

Just last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that the plant's owner TEPCO was failing in its duty to protect essential safety systems at the plant and warned that it could be more than 40 years until the crippled plant could properly be deemed "decommissioned."

At this point, given the TEPCO's track record and what's occurring at Fukushima now, that seems like an unlikely timeframe.

To that issue, the Times spoke with Tadashi Inoue, an expert on Japan's nuclear power industry, who said: "Tepco is clearly just hanging on day by day, with no time to think about tomorrow, much less next year."


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