A Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) employee (center) speaks to the media in front of a monitor in the refrigerator building at the company’s Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant, in Okuma, Fukushima, Japan, on February 23. The company’s attempt to clean up and recover the wrecked site has been beset by frequent delays and rising costs.
Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: Radioactive Water May Have Been Leaking From Reactors for Months
The Japanese company in charge of cleaning up one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters said Friday its latest error may have caused contaminated water to leak into the ground for nearly half a year.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) said it erroneously configured gauges used to measure groundwater levels in six wells near Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant reactors Nos. 1 through 4, all of which were destroyed when a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Japanese coast and caused a series of meltdowns at the plant.
The false readings, which have been relied on since April 19 and were discovered this week, meant that groundwater levels were actually more than two feet below what Tepco was measuring, The Japan Times reported. The company said this mistake caused groundwater levels to fall below the limit set to prevent radioactive water from flowing out of the plant and into the nearby wells, known as subdrains, at least once, in May.
Tepco spokesperson Shinichi Nakakuk said, however, the company’s readings did not show any significant increases in radioactivity outside of the facilities and that a leak was unlikely, according to Sky News.
Between May 17 and May 21, groundwater reportedly fell as much as 7 and a half inches below the safety levels at least eight times. Tepco has not been able to determine how long the dangerous levels persisted because they only measure the site hourly. Company officials said they were still investigating the incident, according to Japan’s NHK news outlet.
More than 15,000 people were killed when an earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan’s east coast, where the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is located. The threat of radioactive contamination following meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant’s Nos.1, 2 and 3 reactors, as well as massive damage to the fourth, forced 150,000 residents to evacuate, most of whom have yet to return.
Since the disaster, plant owner Tepco has struggled through the recovery process, the price tag of which was raised to $192 billion last year, according to Reuters. The leading obstacle that the company faces is extracting the nuclear fuel that remains in the plant’s damaged nuclear reactors. The severe radiation levels have “killed” even robots specifically designed to swim underwater and detect the location of the melted nuclear fuel.
Lava-like rocks believed to be the elusive nuclear fuel were finally discovered in July using a small, custom-built robot known as “Little Sunfish,” according to Sky News. Actually removing the deadly substance, however, has once again been delayed and would not likely begin until 2023, according to Japanese officials.
Japan’s latest plan to clean up the site did not make any mention of what Tepco would do with about 777,000 tons of water contaminated with tritium, a nuclear byproduct that’s notoriously difficult to remove once mixed with water. In July, Tepco chairman Takashi Kawamura said the “decision has already been made” to dump the tritium-tainted water into the Pacific Ocean; however, he later said he would need Tokyo’s support to go through with the measure.
While Tepco and experts have said dumping the tritium-laced water used to cool down the reactors into the ocean would be relatively harmless, local fishermen and environmental activists have condemned the potential solution, saying it would further hurt the already damaged reputation of the region.
Botched Gauges Mean Radioactive Water Might Be Leaking From Fukushima
Radioactive, contaminated water may have leaked from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in Japan into nearby groundwater, report plant officials. The incident has not been confirmed, but is suspected to have occurred because of a fault in well placement.
The wells around the reactors are designed to pump groundwater away from the facility. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the plant, said that six wells in the vicinity of the reactors were actually a full three feet below the required safe height to avoid contamination. This means it’s possible that radioactive waste water has been leaking into the soil at those sites.
The mistake was noticed in April 2017 during tests that preceded the digging of a new well, and TEPCO launched a full investigation. The mistake was a result of TEPCO erroneously configuring the gauges in the wells, repeatedly giving them false readings of the groundwater levels at those sites.
TEPCO tested all six questionable sites and found that the groundwater has no elevated levels of radioactivity. A leak is therefore unlikely, according to TEPCO spokesman Shinichi Nakakuki.=
The Fukushima plant suffered a triple meltdown following the devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011, killing around 16,000 people. After the meltdown that forced 174,000 people to abandon their homes, further contamination occurred when melted-down nuclear fuel seeped into the groundwater.
The wells are to prevent radioactive water from leaking into the Pacific, but TEPCO has had repeated troubles with managing thousands of tons of contaminated water. Shortly after the meltdown, an underground barrier of frozen soil was built, but in 2016 they revealed that the measure had been ineffective. In July 2013, TEPCO revealed that radioactive water was leaking from the plant into the Pacific Ocean, something they had previously denied.
TEPCO has been severely criticized by the Japanese government and public for their mishandling of the meltdown and ensuing crisis. In 2016, three of TEPCO’s top executives, including former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, were indicted on charges of criminal negligence.
They are also the subject of 30 class action lawsuits from displaced and injured residents. The most recent lawsuit was resolved earlier in September, when the company was ordered to pay 376 million yen ($3.36 million) to 42 plaintiffs.
Botched gauge settings might have contaminated Fukushima groundwater from April onward: Tepco
The discovery of falsely configured monitoring equipment at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant means the groundwater flowing underneath it might have gotten contaminated from April onward, Tokyo Electric said Friday.
The utility said incorrect gauge settings were used to measure groundwater levels in six of the wells near reactors 1 and 4. This resulted in groundwater readings about 70 cm higher than reality, which means the beleaguered power utility has been mismanaging the groundwater there for months.
To prevent tainted water from leaking from the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. installed water gauges so it could keep the groundwater levels in the wells a meter higher than the contaminated water in the buildings.
Tepco adjusts the amount of water in wells called subdrains around the buildings to keep the groundwater higher than the tainted water inside them, which prevents it from flowing out. If the groundwater levels sink below the level of the radioactive water, it might leak out.
On Friday, Tepco said the estimated groundwater level in one of the six subdrain wells close to reactor 1 fell below the level in the reactor building at least eight times during the five-day period to May 21 because the gauges were set incorrectly.
Groundwater levels were 2 mm to 19 mm lower than the level in the buildings, Tepco said, adding that it does not know precisely how long each of these problematic situations lasted because water level data is collected by the hour.
Tepco said groundwater levels in five other wells affected by the incorrect settings did not fall below the levels in the nearby reactor buildings.
All six are in the area surrounded by an underground ice wall designed to prevent groundwater leakage.
According to Tepco, the incorrect settings date as far back as April 19. The earliest error affected the gauge in a well where groundwater fell to hazardous levels.
In the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, reactors 1, 2 and 3 at the plant experienced core meltdowns and reactors 1, 3 and 4 were severely damaged by hydrogen explosions following a massive offshore earthquake that spawned large tsunami in March 2011.