Battling Contaminated Water
JapanThursday, March 10

Battling Contaminated Water

The damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continues to contaminate large amounts of water, and in that regard nothing has changed since the accident 5 years ago.

Twice a week, fishermen from Iwaki City head out into Fukushima's coastal waters. Their port is 40 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

"We only handle products that have passed screening," one of the fishermen says. "They're safe and we hope people enjoy eating them."

They conduct strict checks on the concentration of radioactive substances in each catch. They've set their own standard of 50 becquerels per kilogram. That's even stricter than the national standard, said to be the toughest in the world.

The area was once renowned for offering one of the best catches around Japan. But 5 years hasn't been enough time for fishermen to restore that reputation. The problem is the water. People can't be sure if it is as clean as it was before the nuclear accident.

The operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company, is struggling to control water contaminated with radioactive materials.

Workers at the plant must keep the molten fuel at the nuclear plant cool. That requires injecting enormous quantities of water.

And the volume increases as groundwater seeps into the plant. Huge amounts of contaminated water are being generated.

Workers are pumping out the water. But since they cannot remove all the radioactive substances it contains, they have to store it in tanks onsite. About 800,000 tons of water are now being stored.

TEPCO officials are trying to limit the volume by keeping groundwater away from the reactor buildings. In May 2014, they started pumping it up before it could reach the buildings, and releasing it into the ocean.

They've also been working on measures to keep contaminated water from flowing into the sea. They installed a steel wall near the shore last year.

Now the government and TEPCO officials are planning to build another wall, this one made of ice.

Pipes surrounding the reactor buildings descend 30 meters into the ground. Cooling liquid will be circulated through the pipes to freeze the soil around them.

If all goes well, the result will be a wall of ice 1.5 kilometers long. But some people doubt the $300 million system will work.

"The frozen soil will melt if it's left on its own. This is just a temporary measure," says Satoshi Sato, a nuclear engineer at Master Power Associates. "It could melt one day. What will they do if some parts don't freeze? Ideally, it should be a solid wall that lasts a long time."

A TEPCO official responsible for decommissioning the plant says they're making progress.

"We recognize there are concerns about using the ice wall in the long term. So we will monitor it closely," says Naohiro Masuda, president of the Fukushima Daiichi D&D Engineering Company.

"We've implemented measures to respond to the contaminated water issue, and the ice wall is just one of them. We're working on a comprehensive approach."

The fishermen of Fukushima are also keeping a close eye on the situation. They desperately hope it will be resolved as soon as possible, so they can resume their former way of life, out on the sea.

More Stories