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Fukushima Workers Tackle Highly Radioactive Water

Today, workers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan tested out a system that will start cleaning up an enormous volume of radioactive water there.

The water has flooded many buildings at the complex, and it has seriously complicated efforts to bring the crisis there to an end. But it's also essential to keep the reactor cores from overheating.

In fact, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, has been pumping water continuously into the crippled nuclear plant, ever since the March 11 tsunami knocked out the system that was supposed to keep the reactor cores from overheating.

The result is that there's now enough radioactive water there to fill something like 40 Olympic swimming pools.

Per Peterson, chair of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, says that contaminated water is actually a good thing — if you consider what could have happened instead.

"Most of the radioactive material that was released from the damaged fuel was actually washed out into this water, instead of going out into the environment," Peterson says. "And that's good."

But it's also a huge problem when it comes to cleaning up the plant, because the radioactive water keeps workers at bay. So TEPCO hired several companies to build a water decontamination plant. They're hoping the plant will be fully operational later this week.

Removing Radioactive Sludge

The challenge is to remove radioactive cesium and other elements that are dissolved in the water.

The water is being pumped from the flooded basements into holding tanks. From those tanks it will go through a filtration system, something like a charcoal filter, and that captures some of the radioactive material.

We can reduce the radioactivity of the contaminated water by a factor of at least a thousand, so it will be significantly less radioactive than when it was coming in.

Next, the water will run into a system built by the French nuclear company Areva. They use a chemical reaction to turn the dissolved cesium into a solid material.

"In our step of the process, the radioactive material precipitates out like rain and settles in the bottom of the tanks, where it forms a radioactive sludge," says company spokesman Jarret Adams. "And that sludge can be removed from the tanks and sent for long-term storage."

They use this process at other nuclear facilities, and Adams says it works quite well.

"We can reduce the radioactivity of the contaminated water by a factor of at least a thousand, so it will be significantly less radioactive than when it was coming in."

Cleaning up all this water is likely to take a couple of months. If the water is clean enough, Japanese officials could decide to dump some of it into the ocean. But in the short term, they plan to run it back into the plant. That will keep the cores relatively cool. And as long as they stay cool, they won't ooze more radioactive cesium into the water.

"I think this is an important step forward because once they begin treating this water, then they'll be able to get into the plant and start doing significant repairs," Adams says.

Plugging The Leak

And one of the most important repair jobs will be to stop the reactor vessels from leaking water in the first place. Those leaks mean TEPCO has to keep pumping more and more water into the reactors to keep them cool. There are several ideas are in play to plug the leaks.

"One of the ones that's been suggested is to literally fill the space between the containment vessel and the building walls with cement or grout," says Peterson from Berkeley. "It's possible that one might also be able using robots to get in and patch places where the leaks are occurring as well."

Once the leaks are patched, the utility can fill the three damaged reactor vessels completely with water, without flooding the rest of the plant. Not only would that keep the reactor cores cool, but this clean water would serve as an effective radiation shield. In fact, a water shield proved to be key to cleaning up the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania, back in 1979.

"It was possible to remove the fuel because you could flood water up above the level of the fuel, provide shielding, and then workers could get in to manipulate damaged fuel, and get it out," Peterson says.

Eventually, they'll need to do the same thing at Fukushima Daiichi, though as with Three Mile Island, that process is likely to take many years.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.