Japan eyes ice wall to block Fukushima fallout

It’s been a long weekend, and you might have what I call a vacation hangover. If you’re feeling a little foggy, you might assume you read that headlines wrong, but you didn’t.

In a move that smacks of the 2010 BP oil spill disaster, the Japanese government has announced plans to erect a 1.4km-long underground frozen wall around Fukushima’s four damaged nuclear reactors.

It’s hoped that the ‘ice wall’ – an untested and expensive technique — will prevent groundwater from mixing with coolant water that has been contaminated after coming into contact with melted nuclear fuel. For some reason, this desperate tactic gives me the same uneasy feeling that BP’s “junk shot” did almost four years ago, but for all of our sake’s, I hope it’s more successful.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

According to many reports over the past few weeks, the tsunami-caused nuclear disaster that struck in 2011 was never properly contained by TEPCO, which operated the plant. Unbeknownst to the world, highly toxic coolant water was mixing with groundwater and flowing into the sea at a rate of about 300 tons a day.

Now, just days before the International Olympic Committee chooses between Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid on which city will host the 2020 Olympics, the government says TEPCO has shown they are unable to deal with the problem, and has decided to step in.

On Tuesday, it was announced that the Japanese government “will spend $470 million on a subterranean ice wall and other steps in a desperate bid to stop leaks of radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear station after repeated failures by the plant’s operator,” reports Phys.Org. $150 million of the total amount will be spent on upgraded water treatment units that are supposed to remove all radioactive elements but water-soluble tritium.

From Phys.Org: The ice wall would freeze the ground to a depth of up to 30 meters (100 feet) through an electrical system of thin pipes carrying a coolant as cold as minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit). That would block contaminated water from escaping the facility’s immediate surroundings, as well as keep underground water from entering the reactor and turbine buildings, where much of the radioactive water has collected.

As the Guardian points out, however, these fantasically-expensive tactics will only go so far toward solving the problem. It still won’t take care of the hundreds of barrels of contaminated water that have already accumulated at the sight. “In addition, the new funding represents only a tiny potion of the tens of billions of dollars experts estimate it will cost to decommission the plant, an operation that is likely to last at least 40 years.”

* Beth Buczynski, EarthTechling