The Japanese government is to invest almost half a billion dollars (47 billion Japanese yen; £300m) in the building of a frozen wall around the perimeter of the Fukushima nuclear plant, in a bid to prevent further leakage of radioactive water and waste.
The announcement comes just days before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) joins together to elect the host city for the 2020 Olympic Games, for which Tokyo, along with Istanbul and Madrid, is in the running. Such a decision has been interpreted by many as a means of eliminating any concerns the IOC may have for the safety of the sporting event.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was heavily damaged in the 2011 earthquake, which also triggered a devastating tsunami, from which the prefecture is still recovering. Since then, the nuclear plant has leaked several hundred tons of radioactive and contaminated water into the sea. The damage to the plant has also exacerbated the contamination, as water must be continually pumped over the reactors to cool them, a process which releases an additional 400 tons of contaminated water into the sea each day.
With increased leakage over the past few weeks, concerns have grown rapidly, with many questioning Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) capability of implementing a solution to this increasingly grave problem. Indeed, the government has shown its determination to solve the issue at all costs, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying: “Instead of leaving this up to TEPCO, the government will step forward and take charge. The world is watching if we can properly handle the contaminated water but also the entire decommissioning of the plant.”
And the government’s solution? Drastic, to say the least, arriving in the form of an ‘ice wall’, which will be constructed around the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The ground around the plant will be frozen, to a depth of 30 metres, using a system of thin pipes which will be installed under the ground. These pipes will carry a type of coolant, which will lower the underground temperature to as much as -40 degrees Celsius. The ice wall would act as a barrier, preventing contaminated water from leaking from the plant’s immediate surroundings, as well as keeping uncontaminated groundwater from coming into contact with the radioactive water, which collects around the plant.
Of the government funding, 32 billion yen (£200m) will be invested in the building of the ice wall itself, whilst the remaining 15 billion will be put towards upgrading current water treatment units, so that they are capable of removing all radioactive elements bar water-soluble tritium.
Japanese construction company Kajima Corp will be running stringent tests on the ‘ice wall’ project plans, and, if successful, work will begin on the project, with an expected completion date of March 2015. Many remain sceptical, however, of the durability of the government’s plan. Whilst similar walls have been constructed in the past, for example around tunnels and subways, a wall of this scale has never been attempted, and indeed some critics are dubious of the longevity of the ice wall. Running costs would be huge, say the experts, and frozen walls are usually a short-term solution to leakage problems. Use of these ice walls has not as yet been proven for long-term use. In any case, the issue of contaminated water leakage will continue to exist throughout the two year construction process; a problem which will require a contingency plan in the meantime.
Sources include BBC News, the Independent
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