Feature

Crisis at Fukushima

The Japanese government said it was taking over the cleanup effort at the crippled nuclear plant amid disturbing reports of new leaks.

The Japanese government said this week it was taking over the cleanup effort at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant amid disturbing reports that new leaks are allowing highly radioactive water to flow into the Pacific Ocean. Since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused a massive nuclear-core meltdown, the utility TEPCO has been unable to contain the contamination. This week it admitted that radiation levels near one leaky tank were 18 times higher than previously recorded, and intense enough to kill a person in four hours. In what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called “a fundamental solution to the problem of contaminated water,” the government said it would build a mile-long, subterranean ice wall around the reactor cores.

It sounds “like a crazy, last-ditch gambit,” said Josh Dzieza in TheDailyBeast.com. Yet it could work. Ice walls have been used for decades to protect mines from flooding. At Fukushima, pipes filled with supercooled liquid will be sunk to depths of 100 feet to freeze the earth and prevent the radioactive water from contaminating groundwater. The resulting wall will be “self-healing: Whenever the soil shifts and a crack forms in the wall, any water that flows in or out will freeze, plugging the leak.” But it will need to be maintained for years.

Yet “how far is the government prepared to go?” asked Phred Dvorak and Mari Iwata in The Wall Street Journal. Until now it has refused to devote the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars that would be needed to fix the mess. Instead it blamed TEPCO, and even now it has committed only to the ice wall, insisting that the utility be responsible for replacing the leaky tanks.

That’s disturbing, because TEPCO has shown “a frightening level of amateurism,” said Mycle Schneider in CNN.com. It only found the most recent leak after someone noticed water on the floor. What passes for inspection is two workers walking around to visually scrutinize 1,000 tanks in two hours. Cooling “three molten reactor cores and five spent-fuel pools in a disaster zone is a job of titanic proportions,” and TEPCO should never have had to face it alone. The government has shown a “pattern of denial” since the disaster began. An ice wall alone may not be enough to break it.

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