The science of nuclear energy
The science of nuclear energy

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The science of nuclear energy

3.3 Fukushima – water issues

Listen to the news report from the BBC’s Tokyo correspondent, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes talking to Adam Rutherford, dated August 2013, about two and a half years after the incident at Fukushima.

It discusses plans for an ice wall that was being designed to help stem the flow of water at the Fukushima. Rupert Wingfield-Hayes explains why the geographical position of the site and the flow of groundwater are making the task extremely difficult.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: ou_futurelearn_nuclear_energy_aud_1068.mp3
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BBC Tokyo correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes is on the line from Japan. Rupert, tell us more about the recent problems.
Well there really are two fundamental problems and they both relate to water. So essentially they are using water to inject into the reactors to cool the melted reactor cores, then that is contaminated by contact with the radioactive material. It then has to be stored, it’s being stored in more and more and more large storage tanks than they’ve been building at the site and now those storage tanks are starting to leak. And we’ve had a number of leaks, one major one about two weeks ago where 300 tonnes of radioactive water escaped from a water tank, and then they’ve had a second water problem which is groundwater. In the initial earthquake and disaster two and a half years ago, the basements of the reactor buildings were badly damaged, because of that groundwater is managing to seep into those basements, mix with the cooling water, get contaminated and then leak out into the ocean.
And this current problem – the leaking tanks – this is the result of previous fixes right? Is it the case that the temporary fixes are just not working properly?
It’s essentially to do with the approach that they’ve taken. They’ve decided that unlike Chernobyl, which was basically they decided to seal up Chernobyl, create an entombment and then leave it for 50 to 100 years. The Japanese have decided – mainly for political reasons – that they are going to clean up the site, and decontaminate it and dismantle it. Because of that they have opted to continue cooling these reactors and to then dealing with the cooling water and eventually dismantling the reactors. But this is creating huge engineering challenges for them and they’re basically making it up as they go along, and so we’re starting to see the results of these temporary fixes, as they come apart at the seams.
Now you’ve visited the site, what is the layout like, what is the geography of where they are storing the contaminated water?
Well the geography is one of the things that makes it very complicated. Firstly the site is very close to the Pacific ocean, the reactors are less than 100 metres from the shoreline and so any contaminated water doesn’t have far to go to get into the sea. And the second thing is it’s a very mountainous part of Japan, so if you go inland from the site, it immediately climbs away from the power station site steeply, and within a few kilometres you are at the foot of the mountains. So there is a natural underground movement of water from the mountains to the sea, and it passes right under the site and that’s why they’re having so many problems with contaminated groundwater, and of course it means the leaks from the storage tanks are likley to end up in the sea.
So the government have just come to the rescue with this huge 300 million pound plan, and you mentioned that there are sort of political motivations behind it, what is the plan?
Well the plan is two-fold. One is to build what they’re calling an underground barrier, right around the damaged reactor buildings to ring them underground with an ice wall, so they’ll freeze the ground, and that’s going to cost a lot of money. And then the second thing they’re doing is they’re trying to get what they call a mutlinuclied decontamination plant, it’s basically a very complicated filtering system to take radiation out of the water, so that they can then dispose of the water into the sea. They’ve been trying to build that for two years and it’s still not working properly and so they need more money to try and get that working properly.
End transcript
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The two main issues identified are:

  1. Containment of the contaminated water. There is an increasing amount of this in storage!
  2. Isolating the groundwater from the contaminated water.

In fact the ice wall method of containment failed and was abandoned in 2014. Various attempts were made to cool the water sufficiently for it to freeze but were unsuccessful, leaving the issue of water flow ongoing.

In the next section, find out about the other ongoing challenges at Fukushima.


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