Fri August 23, 2013

Regulators Monitor 'Serious Leaks' At Japanese Nuclear Plant

Originally published on Fri August 23, 2013 5:25 am



The Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant is back in the news more than two years after an earthquake and tsunami triggered a series of meltdowns. New leaks found this week prompted regulators to consider raising the alert level there in Japan. NPR's science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel joined us to explain. Geoff, good morning.


MONTAGNE: Why raise the alert level?

BRUMFIEL: First, I think it's worth just saying a few words about what we mean by that. There's this international scale used by many countries, including Japan, to gauge the severity of a nuclear accident. And in 2011 the meltdowns at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant were already classed a major accident, which is the highest level on the scale.

But now come several serious leaks reported recently at the plant. First the government suggested that many thousands of gallons of water were leaking from the site into the Pacific Ocean. Then on Monday workers reported nearly 80,000 gallons of highly radioactive water leaking from a tank onsite. And taken together, this situation the government now believes could be called a serious incident on the emergency scale.

MONTAGNE: Certainly from the outside it does sound serious. What is causing these leaks?

BRUMFIEL: At Fukushima the big problem is water. It's being fed through the cores of these melted down nuclear reactors because they still need to be kept cool. The fuel inside is still hot. But if you remember, the plant was hit by an earthquake and tsunami, and so these reactors aren't intact. And this water is leaking out through broken pipes and cracks. Nobody really knows where it's going.

And it's mixing with ground water, which is also flowing into the basement of the plant. So you've got this volume of radioactive water which is growing. Some of it's being re-circulated through the reactors, and some of it's leaking into the ocean. But the rest is being stored in hundreds of tanks, which are sprouting up all over the site. And these tanks apparently can leak.

After that first leak was reported on Monday, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which is leading the cleanup operations, conducted a survey and found other hotspots in other tanks. Now, they may be leaking; they may not. But regardless, TEPCO is looking into how to clean up the soil around the tanks and they're conducting further inspections.

MONTAGNE: Well, what about TEPCO and even these regulators? Are they stumbling from mini crisis to crisis? I mean do they have a long-term solution?

BRUMFIEL: There is sort of a plan in place. They have these filtration systems that are supposed to remove a lot of the radioactivity from all this water that's building up on the site. And at the moment there are two systems but only one of them is working. So the volume of highly contaminated water just continues to grow. If they can get that second system working, then they can start bringing down the radioactivity levels in the water.

But the problem is that they can't get all of the radioactivity out. And at the moment in Japan there is no plan for them to get rid of this water. And so for the foreseeable future, they've got this problem of just more and more water on the site. There's also this issue of groundwater which keeps flowing into the plant. And there again, there's some proposed solutions.

Pumping the water around the plant. There's even been an idea of freezing the ground around the plant to sort of prevent groundwater from flooding in. But nobody knows if this is really going to work. So we have these plans, but I think the real sort of takeaway message here is this is a complicated, messy situation. And there's going to be more of these crises, more of these failures of systems. And it's just going to keep happening, I think.

MONTAGNE: Geoff, thanks very much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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