25 Juin 2014
June 25, 2014
Tepco admits need for better working conditions at Fukushima No. 1
Tepco workers at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant help move fuel rods from the cooling pool in the shattered reactor 4 building to an undamaged structure last Nov. 22. | TEPCO/AFP-JIJI
A government official involved in measures to combat the toxic water buildup at Fukushima No. 1 emphasized the importance of improving working conditions for the roughly 6,000 workers at the crippled nuclear plant during a recent media tour.
“I sincerely felt the hardships workers have experienced, as what’s going on here is different from ordinary construction work in terms of the severe heat due to protective suits and high radiation level,” said Masato Kino, the Natural Resources and Energy Agency’s director for management of the contaminated water at the plant.
The water buildup is a major headache for Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government as they work toward decommissioning all six reactors at the complex. The contaminated water is increasing at a rate of around 400 tons per day as groundwater flows into the damaged buildings for reactors 1 through 4.
A group of reporters were permitted last Friday to visit key working areas to tackle the radioactive water, accompanied by Kino and some Tepco officials.
“Hurry up, the dose of radiation here is high,” said a Tepco official, urging reporters to finish quickly at a work site for the underground ice wall near reactor 1, one of the three that suffered a meltdown in the initial stage of the crisis.
Tepco began constructing the huge underground ice wall early this month. It will surround reactor buildings 1 through 4 in an attempt to prevent more groundwater from seeping into their basements and mixing with heavily contaminated water.
Under the unprecedented government-funded project, 1,550 pipes will be inserted deep into the ground to circulate coolant and freeze the nearby soil, thereby forming a 1.5-km-long perimeter. Tepco aims to finish construction of the wall and put it into operation by next March.
However, the work is taking place in conditions of high radiation. “A worker is permitted to continue to do his job for about three hours a day due to legal limits on radiation exposure,” said Kino.
“Look at that crane! Three out of only six or seven of that supergiant kind existing in Japan are operating here,” Kino said. “The current work is dominated by construction.”
In addition to the huge cranes, various kinds of heavy machinery and trucks are operating in the area, making it look like a large-scale construction site.
All of the people at the site, including the reporters, were wearing white protective suits and full face masks. A signboard reads “Highly contaminated water here.”
Since May, Tepco has employed a “groundwater bypass system” in which it has dumped thousands of tons of groundwater into the Pacific Ocean collected from wells dug near the reactor buildings. The utility claims the water’s radiation level meets safety guidelines.
The system is designed to pump out the groundwater before it reaches the heavily contaminated area near the reactors.
By repeating the pumping and dumping, the utility is aiming to slow the pace of highly radioactive water accumulating at the plant.
“We will not be sure whether this measure is working effectively until one or two months have passed,” said Kino.
An Advanced Liquid Processing System, or ALPS, has been developed to reduce the radiation level of the highly contaminated water accumulating at the plant.
ALPS is reportedly capable of removing 62 different types of radioactive substances from the contaminated water, but not tritium.
The system has been plagued by glitches and is still in the trial stage, with all three of its lines resuming Sunday for the first time in about three months.
With the outlook unclear for the countermeasures to contain the contaminated water, “this year is a crucial period,” Kino said. “We have to do everything we can.”
“The number of workers on the site has increased to roughly 6,000, double from a year ago. It is projected to out at 7,000 within one or two years,” said Kenichiro Matsui, a Tepco official in charge of public relations.
“Providing infrastructure including rest facilities and equipment such as dosimeters has been falling behind, although countermeasures were taken,” Matsui added.
Tepco has been building a large-scale rest house and center to provide food and other amenities for workers.
“There will be no problem in securing enough workers for the time being, but I am not sure what will happen in 10, 20 or 30 years. Improving working conditions is what is really necessary,” said Kino.