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Japan to spend €359mn to battle Fukushima radioactive water leak

A costly untested subterranean ice wall be constructed in a desperate step to stop the leaks after repeated failures by the plant’s operator.

This aerial photo taken on 31 August 2013, shows the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant at Okuma in Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan.
This aerial photo taken on 31 August 2013, shows the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant at Okuma in Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan.
Image: AP Photo/Kyodo News

THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT is to spend almost €359 million before the end of next year on two projects to stop leaks of radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power station

A costly untested subterranean ice wall will be constructed in a desperate step to stop the leaks after repeated failures by the plant’s operator.

The decision is widely seen as an attempt to show that the nuclear accident won’t be a safety concern just days before the International Olympic Committee chooses between Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid as the host of the 2020 Olympics.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi plant has been leaking hundreds of tonnes of contaminated underground water into the sea since shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami damaged the complex. Several leaks from tanks storing tainted water in recent weeks have heightened the sense of crisis that the  plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., isn’t able to contain the problem.

“Instead of leaving this up to TEPCO, the government will step forward and take charge,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said after adopting the outline. “The world is watching if we can properly handle the contaminated water but also the entire decommissioning of the plant.”

The government plans to spend an estimated 47 billion yen (€359 million) through the end of 2014 on two projects — the ice wall and upgraded water treatment units that is supposed to remove all radioactive elements but tritium — according to energy agency official Tatsuya Shinkawa.

The government, however, is not paying for urgently needed water tanks and other equipment that TEPCO is using to stop leaks. Shinkawa said the funding is limited to “technologically challenging projects” but the government will open to additional help when needed.

Underground ice wall

The ice wall would freeze the ground to a depth of up to 30 metres through an electrical system of thin pipes carrying a coolant as cold as -40 degrees. 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.

The project, which TEPCO and the government proposed in May, is set for completion by March 2015.

Similar methods have been used to block water from parts of tunnels and subways, but building a wall that surrounds four reactor buildings and their related facilities is unprecedented.

image

(Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, third from left, speaks during a joint-meeting by Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters. Photo: AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Some experts are skeptical about the technology and say the running costs would be a huge burden.

Atsunao Marui, an underground water expert at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, said a frozen wall could be water-tight but is normally intended for use for a couple of years and is not proven for long-term use as planned in the outline. The decommissioning process is expected to take about 40 years.

“We still need a few layers of safety backups in case it fails,” Marui told the Associated Press. “Plus the frozen wall won’t be ready for another two years, which means contaminated water would continue to leak out.”

Marui said additional measures should be taken to stop contaminated water from keep traveling under the seabed during that time and leak further out in the sea.

TEPCO has been pumping water into the wrecked reactors to keep cool nuclear fuel that melted when the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the plant’s power and cooling system.

The leaks came at a bad time as Tokyo headed into the final days of the contest to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. With anti-government demonstrations plaguing Istanbul, Turkey’s bid and a recession and high Spanish unemployment hanging over Madrid’s candidacy, Tokyo is pushing its bid as the safe choice in uncertain times.

The IOC will select the 2020 host on 7 September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Read: Pipe leaking radioactive water discovered at Fukushima >

Read: Fukushima leak upgraded to a “serious incident” >

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