Every single day for almost 3 years now, several thousand tons of water laced with radioactive particles of cesium, strontium, tritium, and other radioactive goodies flow into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima plant in Japan. The newest plan to contain this threat to safety and sea life is to build a huge underground containment wall made of ice. The project was slated to start maybe sometime this summer, but for whatever reason TEPCO decided it needed to start today.
In September 2013, the Japanese government had first announced it was thinking of this crazy plan to drill a row of wells around the reactor buildings. A liquid coolant would be run through the wells which would freeze the ground for up to a mile down, in an attempt to prevent contaminated groundwater from continuously pouring into the environment, as it’s been doing since March of 2011. But first, they needed to conduct a feasibility study, and had until the end of March 2014 to carefully and thoroughly investigate, as well as weigh the risks vs benefits, of this desperate and possibly dangerous experiment. Apparently, the plan looked good. Because yesterday, NHK reported the work on the wall would start today, at the number 2 and number 3 reactors.
Highly contaminated water started to accumulate in the basements of the Fukushima buildings early on, when crews began injecting hundreds of tons of water into the reactors after the earthquake, which had knocked out power to cooling systems. Groundwater then also started pouring into the basements through various cracks, adding to the problem. So it’s actually 2 big water problems, together. The somewhat misleading and drastically underestimated ‘400 tons’ that comes to us from mainstream news ad nauseam is courtesy of the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. What METI fails to point out is that an additional 1000-4000 tons move through Daiichi every day, due to an underground aquifer. So what we actually are dealing with is upwards of 4400 tons making contact with the 3 molten corium blobs, somewhere under the plant, every single day, for almost 3 years now — and then pouring into the Pacific endlessly.
If this ice wall plan sounds insane, it is. Maybe it’s feasible under certain circumstances, but none of which come even close the massive water problems at Daiichi. The technology has been used before on a much smaller and temporary scale. But even more surprising then TEPCO going ahead with this crazy plan, is that they are doing so ahead of schedule. Any sense of urgency demonstrated by the TEPCO-gang always sets off alarm bells in people who have closely followed this disaster. Why? Because we usually find out later there was some impending doom scenario that was being kept under wraps. Which poses the question, what else could be happening right now, that they might not be telling us?
Here’s a hint: Jiji News Japan reported 2 days ago that highly radioactive groundwater is now flowing freely under reactor number 1. NHK’s Nuclear Watch, who also ran the story, stated: “Experts that analyzed the video were shocked by what they saw.” Levels have skyrocketed since the last round of tests, now one thousand times higher than previously measured (which were several thousand times higher than before that, which were several thousand times higher than before that, and so on and so on). In fact, 8 locations where these checks were performed have hit record highs in recent days. You can view the pdfs here. That is, if they haven’t hit a new record high since I posted this article.
Hint number 2: On January 18th NHK and Kyoto News reported TEPCO “has a problem on their hands“, from a newly found foot-wide leak pouring out at reactor 3. I suspect TEPCO will have dozens if not hundreds of new problems on their hands as robots are sent in to map the reactor insides. Again, the robot and it’s handlers ‘failed to determine’ where it was coming from. Which is the standard line TEPCO seems to use whenever they reveal new and disturbing leak or hole information. “We found _____, but we have no idea when/where/why or how _____ came from/occurred.”
And last but not least, hint number 3: Several nuclear experts have claimed that they suspect that the water being poured into the containment vessels may not be collecting in tunnels and basements, but instead pouring straight into the ocean (see Atomic Suicide: The Tale of the Sailors and the Seals). Which is something that most followers of this disaster have suspected for about the past 3 years. Even though TEPCO has denied all of this, especially the ‘pouring directly into the ocean’ part, until just recently. And these are only a few of the glowing highlights of the Fukushima Circus from over the past few weeks. Today, Mr Freeze joined the growing list of attractions.
Some have expressed doubts about the ice wall idea from its first suggestion. Mainly, because they had already played around with this technology at reactor 1, with disastrous results. In fact, the outcome of experimental ice wall number 1 is the reason why water has been backing up at the site, overflowing wells, and contributing to subsidence issues. So now, the solution is…let’s build an even bigger ice wall? For whatever reason, TEPCO has decided to now fight water with ice for real, and do it quickly. What we are about to witness is the most enormous and expensive nuclear experiment that’s ever been attempted, creating the largest man-made section of frozen earth on the planet, that has to be maintained for possibly hundreds of years, with no idea whether or not it will work. And, no idea whether it will further contribute to the backing-up, subsidence, and groundwater issues, that already occurred from failed ice wall experiment number 1, though I’m guessing it will. And all this is happening concurrently with the never-before-attempted-damaged-spent-fuel-removal-project going on at rickety-reactor number 4, but that’s a whole other story.
Turning soil into virtual permafrost with refrigerated coolant was first used in the 1860s to shore up coal mines, and for construction in areas of abundant groundwater, such as building subway lines. Underground ice walls have been used to block radiation once before, in an experiment at the former site of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which produced plutonium for atomic weapons, and was site of the infamous blood-throwing nun incident. But anyone who remembers chemistry class and has seen the schematics and drawings of the corium under the plant, is probably wondering right now “So what happens when massive amounts of frozen nitrogen meets a 3,000 degree corium lava-field?” I guess we’re going to find out. And, needless to say, this ice wall experiment comes at a very high cost. Approximately 32 billion yen, or 320 million dollars…and thats just to start-up the ice machine. I have not seen any estimations of what this frozen wonderland will cost to ‘keep things frozen’ for years, decades, or as renowned physicist Michio Kaku has stated previously, centuries.
Ice wall aficionados think it’s a great idea, of course. “It’s just sometimes it’s the only scenario that will really work,” said Joseph Sopko, executive vice president of Moretrench, a New Jersey-based contractor specialized on ice wall projects. “When nothing else will work, it just jumps out at you and says ‘Wow, it’s a freeze job.’”
Bill Horak, Chair of nuclear science and technology at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, was also skeptical about the ice wall idea when interviewed in September of 2013. “There’s an aquifer underneath the plant that runs out to the sea, like an underground river,” he told ABC News. “It picks up contaminants that have leaked into the ground, and no one has a good handle on how contaminated that water is.” Horak also isn’t sure either whether Japan’s ambitious project is the right direction to head in, but he offered an extremely lame analogy, anyway. “When we had a leak at Brookhaven about 13 or 14 years ago, we put in a bunch of wells to pump the water before it got off site,” he said. The lab kept the water in a closed loop and played the waiting game for the radioactive element tritium to decay naturally. “I don’t know if anyone has actually tried this frozen wall concept for this type of activity.” No Bill, they haven’t. You would think the Chair of nuclear science and technology at Brookhaven would have known that, but whatever. And, you would also think he would recognize the difference between ‘a leak’ at Brookhaven, and ‘thousands of tons pouring’ at Fukushima.
And then there is, as one learns when relying on TEPCO for important info, a lot of uncertainty as to what radioactive elements are actually being leaked into any water on the site, from any of the number of leaky/pouring spots that have been discovered so far. “Most of the radioactive nuclei have been cesium and iodine,” said Horak. “But if you have actinides, the nastier and heavier elements like uranium and plutonium, that would be a whole other thing entirely.” Well. It’s a shame Mr Horak didn’t enlighten us further. A whole other thing like what?
So what could possibly be done as an alternative? A more useful and prudent plan in my opinion would have been to use the $320 million and bring in the Dutch. Have them excavate and reroute the enormous quantity of groundwater coming into the site from the mountains to the west along Japan’s volcanic spine, and channel it far north -and away- from the plant itself. Then you are cutting the head off the dragon – the water dragon at least (not the corium dragons…those are under the plant). Because the ice wall is not going to stop the flow of water in any way, it’s just going to cause it to go somewhere else. Will it be up, down, around, or south — towards Tokyo, and the Kanto aquifer?
As anyone who has ever had a house with a leaky basement knows, water always finds a way. I know that’s a rather lame analogy as well, but it’s true. Let’s hope TEPCO finds their way, and soon.