Jul 14 3:52 PM

Fukushima: The ice wall cometh?

Fukushima workers are attempting to build an "ice wall" to cantain contaminated runoff.
Kimimasa Mayama / AFP / Getty Images

TEPCO, the folks nominally in charge of cleaning up their ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant, are doing their best to create an “ice wall” around the breached nuclear reactors … or maybe they are just doing their best to add “building an ice wall” to the list of catchphrases used to imply lies, deflections and cons, like “This won’t hurt a bit“ and “The check’s in the mail.”

TEPCO officials have been hot to tout the frozen cordon as they scramble to contain hundreds of thousands of gallons of irradiated water leaking from the crippled reactor and spent fuel pools, and segregate it from fresh groundwater streaming down from surrounding mountains. Officials have been collecting contaminated water — which is accumulating from the water being pumped in to cool the melted cores in the breached reactors and the fuel rods in damaged spent fuel storage pools, as well from rain and snow melts — in hundreds of above-ground tanks, but the plant is running out of capacity, and the tanks have sprung multiple leaks in the last year.

But the ground freezing has never been used in anything resembling this scenario (it is more commonly used when constructing tunnels), nor has it ever been attempted on such a large scale. And, the plan also comes with risks of its own: there are fears that diverted water will accumulate elsewhere — water seeks its own level, as they say — and worries that the diverted water and the expansion and contraction of the ground caused by the freezing will further destabilize damaged structures or the collection of tubes, pipes and pumps used in makeshift emergency cooling and drainage systems.

"I'm not convinced the freeze wall is the best option," Dale Klein, former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and now a senior adviser to TEPCO, told Kyodo News in May. "What I'm concerned about is unintended consequences. Where does that water go and what are the consequences of that?”

A system designed to process and partially decontaminate the stored wastewater has never been fully functional since it came online in March 2013, and most recently missed a June target for a full restart. TEPCO now says it has resumed operation of all three lines of the system, “but only on a trial basis,” according to the Guardian. Last year, it was revealed that 300 tons of contaminated water was leaking from the nuclear site into the Pacific Ocean each day.

Plus, it is quite possible the frozen wall may never work. A smaller ice project, necessary to plug a flooded tunnel between units 2 and 3, has failed to keep water out because it has failed to freeze. “We can't make the temperature low enough to freeze water," a TEPCO spokesman said.

The larger ice wall cannot actually go forward until the flooded tunnel is drained and filled in with cement, according to TEPCO’s plans.

Even if it were on schedule, the roughly 5,000-foot barrier is not due to be finished until March 2015, and will cost upwards of $315 million. To function as planned, the wall would require a constant source of electricity estimated to be the annual equivalent of powering 13,000 homes.

The Fukushima cleanup has also been hampered by a shortage of skilled workers, as many with experience — tired of radiation exposure and low pay — have left for jobs in the alternative energy sector. There have also been reports of subcontractors with ties to organized crime replacing higher-paid workers with short-term, low-wage employees and the homeless.

Or, as Fukushima Daiichi’s manager Akira Ono calls it, “The TEPCO spirit.” 

I know that our employees have a strong sense of mission — the TEPCO spirit, if you like — that is being passed down from one generation of workers to the next.

Which has to inspire confidence … as the cleanup is projected to take some time.

How much time? Let’s ask Mr. Ono:

Obviously, it's difficult to say for sure how many years it's going to take … at the moment we're talking about 30 or 40 years."

Also, the check’s in the mail.


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