The Japanese government has invested 35 billion yen – roughly $320 million – in the construction of a massive underground “ice wall” at the Fukushima power plant, in a desperate effort to prevent groundwater from seeping into its damaged reactors.
More than five years after the Fukushima incident occurred – an accident caused by an earthquake and resultant 45-foot tsunami that triggered a triple-meltdown at the plant – the government is still desperately trying to find a solution to an ongoing water contamination crisis at the ruined facility.
The three damaged Fukushima reactors contain highly radioactive uranium fuel rods that have continued to contaminate groundwater flooding into the site (at the rate of nearly 40,000 gallons per day) through the highly porous rock and soil bed upon which the plant was built.
The groundwater flow has also prevented the recovery of the uranium fuel from the reactor cores, which may have melted through the steel floors that supported them. In fact, no one knows exactly where the fuel now is. To date, five search robots sent into the reactors have been lost due to high levels of radiation and debris blocking their path.
The underground ice wall, officially named “The Land-Side Impermeable Wall,” consists of a nearly mile-long, 100-foot deep barrier of “man-made permafrost,” that – in theory – should block the flow of groundwater into the reactors, while also preventing contaminated water from seeping into the Pacific Ocean.
But the ambitious and complex plan has been met with skepticism by many experts.
Recent typhoons have already melted parts of the ‘impermeable’ ice wall
Some believe that the government’s desperate “Hail Mary play” will prove to be an expensive and ineffective stopgap measure, and already – just weeks after the ice wall was more or less completed and activated – typhoons have apparently caused parts of the wall to fail.
And even best-case scenarios regarding the ice wall’s effectiveness will still leave the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) – the operator of the Fukushima plant – with a massive cleanup problem.
From The New York Times:
“Even if the ice wall works, Tepco will face the herculean task of dealing with the huge amounts of contaminated water that have accumulated. The company has installed filtering systems that can remove all nuclear particles but one, a radioactive form of hydrogen known as tritium. The central government and Tepco have yet to figure out what to do with the tritium-laced water; proposals to dilute and dump it into the Pacific have met with resistance from local fishermen, and risk an international backlash.”
There may prove to be no “best-case scenarios,” however. The rain from recent typhoons has already caused the partial melting of two sections of the wall, according to TEPCO officials, and many experts are concerned that the wall could never completely prevent the groundwater flow in the first place.
Skeptics argue that the wall may only act as a “sieve” due to areas where there are buried obstructions and tunnels that will prevent a complete blockage of the groundwater.
Too little, too late
In any case, the Fukushima crisis is far from over, and no one knows when or if the damaged site can ever be fully cleaned up.
In hindsight, most agree that the Fukushima site was poorly chosen in the first place, due to its proximity to the ocean and its permeable rock and soil base. And, since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, both the central government and TEPCO have failed to contain the resulting radiation leaks, all the while downplaying the enormous dangers posed to the environment and the public.
This latest attempt at actually doing something about the leaks seems as ill-fated as the entire cleanup fiasco has been all along. The ice wall scheme is apparently just another example of “too little, too late.”