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article imageTEPCO plan to build 'ice wall' questioned by nuclear authorities

By Karen Graham     May 3, 2014 in Environment
It has been more than three years since the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, and the facility is still plagued with massive amounts of contaminated water. Repeated leaks and other mishaps have delayed decommissioning the plant.
A panel of nuclear experts met with Japanese nuclear regulatory officials on Friday in Tokyo to discuss their doubts about TEPCO's plans to build a subterranean "ice wall" at the disabled Fukushima power plant.
The Japanese government announced in September 2013 their plans to spend over $320 million on the underground ice barrier to prevent the contaminated water from seeping into the Pacific Ocean. Additional money was to be spent in upgrading water treatment plants in the area to remove radioactive elements, bringing the total price of the ice wall to just shy of $500 million.
When people hear the phrase "ice wall," a picture of a wall of ice comes to mind. The actual wall is more like a network of coils like the coils seen in a refrigerator or freezer. The coils transport liquid nitrogen at 30 degrees Kelvin, freezing the ground and supposedly creating an impenetrable barrier. Experts have said the frozen wall concept is a proven technology, but the size of the TEPCO project is "unprecedented."
The ice wall concept has many nuclear officials questioning the veracity of the plan in the long haul, even though government officials have said feasibility studies were done at the plant earlier and proved to be successful. TEPCO's announced plans to start construction of the ice wall in June of this year may have to be put on hold, though.
Toyoshi Fuketa, a commissioner with Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority said the hydrological impact of the ice wall is still unclear. "We need to know if a frozen wall is really effective, and more importantly, we need to know whether a frozen wall may cause any trouble," Fuketa said.
Former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Dale Klein heads a supervisory panel tasked with overseeing the plant operator’s nuclear safety efforts. Klain said, "I’m not convinced that the freeze wall is the best option. What I’m concerned about is unintended consequences. Where does that water go and what are the consequences of that? I think they need more testing and more analysis.”
Former British Atomic Energy Authority Chairperson Barbara Judge is also on the panel, and she said she was concerned about the effectiveness of the freeze wall during the summer months. “No one has built a freeze wall this long for this period of time. Typically, you build a freeze wall for a few months,” Klein also added.
In April, it was reported that Japanese nuclear regulatory officials were questioning the building of the wall. At that time, Commissioner Fuketa expressed concern about the ground sinking underneath the power plant. He went on to say that all the risks need to be examined further before any building was started. It was also learned on April 21 that the power plant's operator planned to pump up groundwater and release it into the Pacific Ocean. This has made fishermen very uneasy.
Bill Horak, chair of nuclear science and technology at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, said in September 2013 that it wasn't just the storage containers at the facility that were a source of contamination. "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."
More about Japan, TEPCO, ice wall, ground sinking, Pacific ocean
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