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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is a freelance writer on oil and gas, renewable energy, climate change, energy policy and geopolitics. He is based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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As Radioactive Water Accumulates, TEPCO Eyes Pacific Ocean As Dumping Ground

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the embattled owner of Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors, has said it is running out of space to store water contaminated with radioactive materials and is proposing to treat the water and dump it in the Pacific Ocean.

Up until now, TEPCO has been storing radioactive water in giant storage tanks on the site of its Fukushima reactor. But groundwater continually flowing into the reactor site becomes contaminated as it does so. Containing and storing an ever-increasing volume of contaminated water is a bit like running on a treadmill – new groundwater becomes contaminated just as TEPCO succeeds in removing previously contaminated water. Meanwhile, the storage tanks multiply around the reactor complex.

In June, TEPCO began construction on what it hoped would be a more permanent solution – an “ice wall.” This is how it is supposed to work: TEPCO would insert 1,500 pipes into the ground around the damaged reactors. It would then flow liquid through the pipes at -30 degrees Celsius, which would freeze the soil. That way, as groundwater rushed downhill towards the complex, the ice wall would block the water from flowing underneath the plant.

Separately, TEPCO is trying to freeze the contaminated water that has leaked directly from the reactor buildings into underground trenches. In total, a staggering 11,000 metric tons of water containing substances like uranium and plutonium has accumulated. TEPCO has thus far failed to freeze the contaminated water, and had to resort to dumping ice onto the site in an effort to freeze the area.

Now the company has admitted that it can’t keep up. So it wants approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Authority to pump out the water, treat it, and begin dumping it into the Pacific.

“We know we have to get an agreement from the relevant government authorities, the prefecture and local fishing unions,” a TEPCO spokesman said recently.

But pushback from the public could present a problem. “We would never consider dumping the water into the ocean unless we received the consent of local residents,” the TEPCO official told Asahi Shimbun. “The water close to the plant buildings is already contaminated. Fishermen are sure to raise objections to the plan, so it will be difficult to gain their understanding.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) has been critical of the company for not solely focusing on the contaminated trench water – which it says should be the highest priority – but spending resources on issues with lower priority.

“The biggest risk is the trench water. Until that matter is addressed, it will be difficult to proceed with other decommissioning work,” Shunichi Tanaka, NRA chairman said at a news conference, according to the Wall Street Journal. “It appears that they are getting off track.”

Controlling, treating, storing, and disposing of contaminated water is the most critical task in the near-term. Even if that can be resolved, the next step will actually decommissioning the destroyed reactors -- a colossal engineering challenge expected to take 40 years and cost over $15 billion. Nothing like it has ever been done before; indeed, the task is so unprecedented, it will require robotics that haven’t been invented yet.

But first, TEPCO has to find a place for its toxic water.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • joe smith on August 15 2014 said:
    So, TEPCO is pretty much saying yeah we are never going to fix it and if we can the solution will cost so much in the end the pacific ocean is dead. Oops butter fingers. And everyone will give them a pass as well as give Japan a pass and chalk it up to "lesson learned"? Hell, even Russia did a better job. This is little more then a snow the world, lie like a dog, but save face moment for Japan.
  • Dispensaryexchange on August 15 2014 said:
    In other words, were all screwed. Might as well have some fun in your life and Google carl rubicam douchebag.
  • doug on August 15 2014 said:
    nothing will be done. no one will be held accountable. it will continue until people are dropping. nothing can stop it. greed for money will not allow media or business to tell the truth and or stop the madness.
    tragic is too soft to slight a word. there are no words.
  • You like FUD? Seems you do! on August 17 2014 said:
    But I finally decided to calculate it because I had the feeling the Fukushima pollution would be vanishingly small as compared to the whole Pacific water.

    Here's how I did it:
    First of all I put all the radioactivity on the same footing as of being of Uranium only.

    The Pacific contains about 2.2 x 10^11 Ci(Curie) of natural radioactivity.

    As far as "one Curie is roughly the activity of 1 gram of the radium isotope 226Ra"

    and "Radium is three million times as radioactive as the same mass of uranium"

    this means that Pacific Ocean is as radioactive as if it contained
    2.2x10^11 x 3x10^6 = 6.6x10^17 grams of Uranium. Or 6.6x1011 tons of Uranium.
    660 billions tons in Pacific.
    This is the natural, always presented radioactivity.

    Now, how much of the Uranium fuel is there in Fukushima?
    Let's say 1 ton. And because this is an isotope that is tenfold as radioactive as the "usual" Uranium let's sum it up to 10 tons.

    All this means that Fukushima would add 10 tons to the already existing natural 660 billions tons in Pacific.
    Very dangerous is it?

    And another thing:
    Assume we have a sphere of contaminated water with 1 meter radius.
    When this water propagates to the clean water it forms a sphere with 2 meter radius. The latter has a volume 23=8 larger than the initial sphere hence the concentration of contamination decreases eight times.
    One additional meter of propagation means 33=27 times less concentration of contamination.
  • You like FUD? on August 18 2014 said:
    In other words, guys, 60 billions Fukushima breakdowns are needed just to double the natural radioactivity in Pacific ocean. And there are places on the Earth with ten or hundred times higher natural radioactivity...
  • Joe Blogga on August 18 2014 said:
    You mean "may eventually disperse across that body of water, but will initially start out as a big cluster of radioactivity."
  • Marcie Perskin on August 21 2014 said:
    First and Foremost
    This is Bio Terrorism
    They have no rights to the Pacific
    This is a G 20 Immediate Issue
    Two years late ~
    Im not sure what kind of Mental Issues
    They are experiencing
    This would make sense to a four year old
    If we do not address this ,
    as the Pacific meets the Arctic
    We are denying our Progeny
    The promise of Tomorrow

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