NPR Story
1:48 pm
Wed August 7, 2013

Japan Tries To Stop Radioactive Water Leaks

Originally published on Wed August 7, 2013 4:05 pm

The Japanese government announced today that the leaks of radioactive cooling water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant are worse than it thought.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered the government to step in to help TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, come up with a solution.

TEPCO only recently acknowledged that the groundwater, used to cool the three reactors damaged in the tsunami of 2011, has been seeping into the ocean.

Michael Friedlander, a former nuclear operator in the U.S., has been very critical of TEPCO since the tsunami. He joins us.

Guest

  • Michael Friedlander, former U.S. nuclear operator.
Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. Japanese government officials announced today that that leak of radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima plant is worse than they thought. And Prime Minister Abe has ordered the government to step in to help TEPCO, the Toyota - rather, the Tokyo Electric Power Company. TEPCO uses groundwater to cool the three nuclear reactors damaged in the tsunami of 2011. They store that contaminated water in huge tanks, but the tanks are full.

TEPCO only recently acknowledged that the contaminated water, along with water from an underground river that flows past the reactors, is escaping the oversaturated ground and going into the ocean. Michael Friedlander is a former nuclear operator here in the U.S., a critic of TEPCO since the tsunami. And, Michael, you've said that the government is stepping in today is a positive sign, but this is a big problem. Tell us more about the plant.

MICHAEL FRIEDLANDER: So the reactors themselves need to be continuously cooled, and so they're using recycled water to actually inject water into the reactors. It drains out, and then they draw off the heated water and remove it to be reprocessed, and then it gets re-injected. So there's this sort of this loop going on continuously to keep the reactors cool. But, unfortunately, part of that means that the water is running out of the reactor, and it's basically filling up the basement, if you will, of the building.

Separately and different from that is that the water table in the area is high enough that groundwater itself is intruding into the buildings. And so that water has to be drawn off and stored. And so that's this huge tank farm that they've been developing over the last two years. So just as if you're in a situation where you have the water table and the groundwater intruding upon the buildings, it's reasonable to expect that a certain amount of water not flows into the buildings, but by diffusion, there's a certain amount of water that - contamination that's flowing out of the buildings and getting into the water table.

YOUNG: Well, the government is now saying that they think it's about 300 tons a day that's flowing out into the ocean, but we're also hearing that it's flowing out as groundwater. The concern is that if - as it starts to surface, it'll flow more quickly, and this is being called an emergency. Some of the solutions being suggested - at least one of the solutions being suggested by TEPCO is to freeze the ground around the reactors.

FRIEDLANDER: The reality of the situation is that water, of course, sinks to its own level. And so the water is flowing towards the ocean. And if you build, in one form or another, this underground coffer, at some point, the water is either going to overflow it or flow around it. They're in a situation where they're trying to fight Mother Nature, and it's just simply - it is not a sustainable solution. The only thing that they can do to solve the problem is they have to identify the source of the leak, the source of the contamination. They need to seal that, and then they to go clean up the aquifer. That is the only long-term course of action that they should be taking.

YOUNG: But as you just described it, the source of the leak could be many sources. It could be just this water finding its way to the ocean from the basements of these reactors, from just the ground itself. It just - that seems like a huge challenge.

FRIEDLANDER: No, of course. But there's - fortunately, there's only a handful of places that could be the source. So they need to be identifying that and fixing the problem. Why don't you seal the source of contamination and allow the water to flow into the ocean naturally, as it always has?

YOUNG: Yeah.

FRIEDLANDER: Imagine in your mind this is an underground river, and effectively, what they're talking about doing is damming up the river. And you can't do that. At some point, the water is going to flow over the dam, or around it.

YOUNG: Well, just your thoughts about TEPCO, because we're now learning that they've known about this seepage, essentially, since the crisis. They've only recently acknowledged it, and now you have the government stepping in. What more do you think should happen here? Should the government completely take away TEPCO's role here, or is TEPCO still the company that has to come up with the solution, the only one that can?

FRIEDLANDER: It's an interesting question that you pose, because, you know, it's a combination of policy and responsibility. You know, at the end of the day, it is TEPCO's property, and it is their plant. But again, the situation where they have, since March 11th, continually demonstrated that they - one could easily question whether or not they know what they're doing. And what point does the local regulator step in and take a much more active role?

YOUNG: And meanwhile, remind us, Michael, what does this mean that - it would seem obvious - but that radioactive water is flowing into the ocean?

FRIEDLANDER: Well, you know, at the end of the day, it's just like radioactive contamination is like any other pollution, right? It's something that's not natural. And when you introduce, you know, something manmade or something artificial, it will over the long term, have an effect on the local ecosystem. The advantage of nuclear contamination is that it's easy to track, and it's easy to monitor. And as, you know, I've called for and been talking since two and a half years ago, I believe that the overall monitoring and tracking of food stuff, of water, of occurrence of sea life really needs to be stepped up.

YOUNG: I'm wondering how long will these reactors have to be cooled in this way? How long will we have to worry about this water?

FRIEDLANDER: So the reactor themselves need to be cooled. They need to be injected with water until the reactor fuel itself has been removed. And I've seen some estimates of that being a 10 to a 15-year in the future evolution. So we will need for the next 10 to 15 years be able to inject water into the reactors. The issue that we're dealing with today is basically this underground river of water that's flowing from somewhere inland in Japan across the countryside to the Fukushima site comes in contact with the basement of the reactor buildings, picks up radioactive contamination and then flows to the sea.

Until we can seal those buildings so that when the groundwater that comes in contact with them doesn't pick up radioactive contamination, that will continue being a problem. And the third issue that we have is we know that when the accident occurred in 2011, that there was a huge belch of radioactive contamination that came out of all three reactors, not only during the explosions but over the course of days and weeks of the accident itself. So there's a vast stretch of land in Japan, around the area that basically the radioactive plume deposited on.

And so the groundwater, the surface and the ocean have all been contaminated, and the contaminants that they've detected have a 30-year half life. So this is something that needs to be monitored, you know, not for the next month, not for the next six months, not for the next year, but for the decades to come.

YOUNG: Michael Friedlander, a former U.S. nuclear operator and critic of the way the emergency in Japan has been handled. Michael, thanks so much.

FRIEDLANDER: You're very welcome. Thanks for having me.

YOUNG: So are you comforted by the Japanese government stepping in, or maybe has Fukushima been completely off your radar, is this latest news a surprise? We welcome your thoughts at hereandnow.org.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And up next, we will explore the difference, Robin, between the Emancipation Proclamation and the emancitation(ph) proclamation.

YOUNG: A T.

HOBSON: There is a big one. Up next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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