Mar 24 1:45 PM

Amid rampant waste, Fukushima’s frozen wall up in smoke

Pipe dream: Japan's TEPCO has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on failed Fukushima disaster mitigation measures, like this 2014 plan to build an "ice wall" around the plant.
Kimimasa Mayama / AFP / Getty Images

More than a half-billion dollars of Japanese taxpayer money has been wasted in the struggle to contain and clean up the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster, according to a government audit.

Japan’s Board of Audit reported that TEPCO, the company nominally in charge of the crippled facility, along with other construction and utility giants, had operated an insular and insufficiently transparent process that resulted in a lengthy list of massive expenditures on untested tactics and shoddy equipment.

The biggest ticket failure was apparently a $270 million water decontamination system from French nuclear behemoth Areva. Designed to remove radioactive cesium from water gushing from Fukushima Daiichi’s three destroyed reactors, the machine was never fully operational, functioned only three months and processed only 77,000 tons of liquid — in total — a minute fraction of the 300,000 tons of contaminated water flowing from the site (and into the sea) each day.

An attempt to contain at least some of that water, a series of pipes and trenches filled with coolant that was to form an “ice wall,” turned out to be another of the cleanup’s dramatically costly and utterly ineffective schemes.

As detailed last summer, the freezing technique was borrowed from tunnel excavation, but had never been tried under such circumstances or on such a large scale. After a year of planning and months of construction, authorities couldn’t get even the small first stage of the project to freeze. Even after adding ten tons of ice and a ton of dry ice on top of the piped coolant every day, TEPCO could not get within 10 degrees (F) of the temperature needed to form a barrier.

By late 2014, 400 tons of ice and somewhere between $840,000 (audited waste) and $300 million (projected cost) later, TEPCO conceded failure.

Other attempts to contain the radioactive water have also come at immense cost. TEPCO spent $134 million on rubber-gasketed tanks that quickly began leaking into the surrounding ground and ocean. And $18 million was spent to build large underground pools that failed within weeks.

Another costly boondoggle detailed in the audit is the $150 million blown on desalination equipment that was supposed to purify the seawater poured over the overheating reactor cores. (All of Fukushima’s cooling systems failed during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, resulting in reactor meltdowns, melt-throughs, hydrogen explosions and containment breaches.) One machine worked for just five days; the best of them survived only six weeks.

Fukushima’s disaster mitigation is four years into what is projected, by the very best estimates, to be a 30- to 40-year cleanup — and even then, there will be many long-term logistical, safety and health concerns. No serious models forecast the project can be accomplished with just the $1.6 billion (190 billion yen) currently allocated, but by that math, waste alone will outstrip the budget three- or four-times over before cleanup is “complete.”

. . .

Correction: An earlier version of this story improperly converted the dollar-to-yen amounts. At present, the Japanese government has allocated 190 billion yen, or roughly $1.6 billion, to the Fukushima cleanup. Of that, auditors said over a third — more than $500 million — had been wasted.

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