As Tokyo Electric pumps thousands of metric tons of water through the wrecked Fukushima station to cool its melted cores, the tainted run-off was found to be leaking into groundwater and the ocean. The approach to cooling and decommissioning the station will need to change and include technologies developed outside of Japan if the cleanup is to succeed, said Vladimir Asmolov, first deputy director general of Rosenergoatom, the state-owned Russian nuclear utility.
“In our globalized nuclear industry we don’t have national accidents, they are all international,” Asmolov said. Since Japan’s new government took over in December, talks on cooperating between the two countries on the Fukushima cleanup have turned “positive” and Russia is ready to offer its assistance, he said by phone from Moscow last week.
After 29 months of trying to contain radiation from Fukushima’s molten atomic cores, Tokyo Electric said last week it will reach out for international expertise in handling the crisis. The water leaks alone have so far sent more than 100 times the annual norms of radioactive elements into the ocean, raising concern it will enter the food chain through fish.
The latest leak of 300 metric tons of irradiated water prompted Japan’s nuclear regulator to label the incident “serious” and question Tokyo Electric’s ability to deal with the crisis, echoing comments made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earlier this month. Zengo Aizawa, a vice president at Tepco, as the Tokyo-based utility is known, made the call for help at a press briefing in Japan’s capital on Aug. 21.
In addition to the leak, Tepco today announced that one of its two filters treating contaminated water was taken offline on Aug. 8 because of corrosion and will be shut until at least next month. The lost layer of filtration adds to the contamination levels of water in the storage tanks.
“It was clear for a long time that Tepco was not adequately coping with the situation,” Asmolov said. “It looks like Tepco management were the last to realize this,” he said. “Japan has the technologies to do this, but they lacked a system to deal with this kind of situation.”
The Fukushima accident of March 2011 is the world’s biggest nuclear disaster since the Soviet Union faced the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986.
So far, Tokyo’s solution to cooling melted nuclear rods at Fukushima that otherwise could overheat into criticality, or a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction, has been to pour water over them. That’s left more than 330,000 tons of irradiated water in storage tanks at the site so far. The water is treated to remove some of the cesium particles in it, which in turn leaves behind contaminated filters.
The sheer quantity of water used is the most at a nuclear accident since the 1972 London convention banned the dumping of waste and radioactive water into the sea, said Peter Burns, formerly Australia’s representative on the United Nations scientific committee on the effects of atomic radiation.
“Until they figure out how to deal with such vast volumes of water, how to manage it, the problem” including of leaks will persist, Burns, a retired radiation physicist, said from Melbourne.
Retaining thousands of tons of radioactive water in tanks was the wrong strategy from the start and Tepco’s handling of the task is a “textbook picture of a failure of management,” Michael Friedlander, who has 13 years of experience running nuclear stations in the U.S., said in an interview with Bloomberg TV in Hong Kong.
The idea of pumping water for cooling was never going to be anything but a “machine for generating radioactive water,” Asmolov said. Other more complex methods such as the use of special absorbents like thermoxide to clean contaminated water and the introduction of air cooling should be used, he said.
Russia’s nuclear company, Rosatom, of which Rosenergoatom is a unit, sent Japan a 5 kilogram (11 pound) sample of an absorbent that could be used at Fukushima almost three years ago, Asmolov said. It also formed working groups ready to help Japan on health effect assessment, decontamination, and fuel management, among others, Asmolov said. The assistance was never used, he said.
“Since the arrival of the new Japanese government, the attitude’s changed,” he said. “So far the talks have been on a diplomatic level, but they are much more positive. And we remain open to working together on this issue. To follow developments I monitor Fukushima news every morning.”
Japan can tap experts in France and the U.S. as well as Russia to help it tackle the situation at Fukushima, he said.
The U.S.’s long history with atomic research, including the nuclear weapons site at the Hanford Engineer Works in Washington state, has provided expertise in cleaning up contaminated sites, said Kathryn Higley, who heads the nuclear engineering and radiation health physics department at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
“We have individuals that are working on groundwater contamination and using technology and developing new technologies to clean up strontium in groundwater, for example, at the Hanford site,” she said. “So there are individuals around the world that have been doing this and certainly they would be more than willing to help in this process.”
France’s Areva SA (AREVA) had designed a radiation filtration system that was used for several months at the Fukushima site as temporary cover before Tepco installed its own facilities. Japanese delegations have also visited U.S. nuclear waste sites together with CH2M Hill Cos., an engineering company based in Englewood, Colorado.
This month a group of 17 Japanese companies including Toshiba Corp. (6502) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (7011) formed an association, called International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, to support Tepco’s efforts.
The association, which aims to research removal of spent fuel from reactor pools and clearance of debris, plans to liaise with international organizations such as the U.S. Department of Energy on its work, Hajimu Yamana, head of the association, told reporters in Tokyo on Aug. 8.
Tepco is in talks with a team of retired U.S. government officials, who worked on water management after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, according to Dale Klein, the chairman of an advisory panel to Tepco and a former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Klein said the officials had served in the Department of Energy and the NRC, declining to identify them.
“It will be beneficial for Tepco to get people who have real live experience in dealing with contaminated water from nuclear events,” Klein said.
An announcement on a deal with the contractors could come within a month, Klein said.
Tepco’s “experience should be in being a safe, reliable electricity generator,” said Klein. The company’s “core competencies have not been having to deal with the massive cleanup that is now facing them.”