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Difficulties with contaminated water ungoing

January 30, 2015

Editorial: TEPCO must settle problems hampering water treatment at nuclear plant




Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) has abandoned its goal of completing treatment of all radioactively contaminated water stored at its tsunami-ravaged Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant by the end of March this year. The decision once again demonstrates the difficulties of treating such highly contaminated water.

The utility made the decision as the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) that it installed at the plant to remove radioactive substances from the contaminated water is not functioning properly. The situation could affect the company's work to decommission and dismantle reactors at the power station. The government and TEPCO should identify problems relating to the treatment of tainted water and steadily press forward with the treatment of such water.

Numerous tanks to hold radioactive water have been constructed at the Fukushima plant, making it look like an oil storage station. The amount of contaminated water is increasing by about 300 to 400 metric tons a day, as ground water flowing beneath the plant's nuclear reactor buildings comes into contact with nuclear fuel that has melted into the ground. If TEPCO were to continue to store highly contaminated water in tanks, it would increase the risk of such water leaking. Since tainted water emits a large amount of radiation, workers struggling to bring the nuclear crisis under control could be exposed. TEPCO has treated radioactive water using the ALPS and other devices, but over 270,000 tons of water remains untreated.

TEPCO promised to finish treating radioactive water at the plant by the end of fiscal 2014, while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared during Japan's 2020 Olympic bid that the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant "is under control." Since taxpayers' money has been used to introduce ALPS, Prime Minister Abe has stated that the national government will take the lead in efforts to treat contaminated water. As such, the government and the prime minister cannot evade responsibility for the delay.

ALPS can remove 62 types of radioactive materials, excluding tritium. However, since it employed a newly developed technology, there was no guarantee that it would function as expected. The government and the plant operator should reflect on their lack of foresight.

TEPCO intends to freeze soil around the atomic power station's four reactors by March to block ground water from flowing onto the premises of the reactor buildings. Since the attempt is the first of its kind in the world, many experts have raised doubts as to whether the system will function as designed.

The government and TEPCO are expected to review their road map toward decommissioning the reactors at the plant as early as March. They should take effective measures that reflect the lessons learned from past mistakes rather than getting caught up with abiding by a schedule.

The central government set up Japan's Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommissioning Facilitation Corp. in August 2014 to increase state involvement in decommissioning the Fukushima No. 1 power plant. There are also other government organizations regulating nuclear plants, such as the Nuclear Regulation Authority. The government should clarify how it will supervise and instruct TEPCO, and state which organizations are responsible for what.

Fatal work-related accidents occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 nuclear plants this month, and work to bring the nuclear crisis under control has been suspended at the No. 1 power station to conduct an emergency inspection of safety measures.

Approximately 7,000 people work at the No. 1 plant a day. The figure is two times higher than two years ago because additional workers have been assigned to work to freeze soil around the plant's reactors. If further work-related accidents were to occur at the power station, it would obstruct efforts to decommission and dismantle the plant's reactors. Top priority should be placed on the safety of workers.


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