Fukushima Ice Wall: Will The $320-Million Project Contain Nuclear Water Leaks?

By Josh Lieberman on September 3, 2013 4:12 PM EDT

fukushima
Japan announced plans to create an ice wall around the Fukushima power plant. The plant was damaged by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (Photo: Reuters)

The Japanese government announced today that it plans to erect an underground ice wall at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. The $320-million ice wall is intended to stop the radioactive water that has flowed into the sea since the plant was damaged in 2011 by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co., has failed to contain the nuclear accident, so the government "felt it was essential to become involved to the greatest extent possible", said a government spokesperson.

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"Instead of leaving this up to TEPCO, the government will step forward and take charge," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "The world is watching if we can properly handle the contaminated water but also the entire decommissioning of the plant."

Some have speculated that the government is stepping in to deal with the nuclear disaster in order to show that Tokyo is a safe enough place to host the 2020 Olympics. Tsunekazu Takeda, the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, has previously said that he doesn't think the nuclear disaster will affect Tokyo's bid. Fukushima is about 180 miles north of Tokyo.

The proposed Fukushima ice wall would surround damage nuclear reactors, preventing groundwater from mixing with radioactive material. This would be done by pumping negative-22-degree Fahrenheit coolant into metal shafts drilled into the ground. Within six to eight weeks, the soil would freeze, creating a 90-foot deep wall of frozen soil, which would prevent contaminated water from leaking to sea. The ice wall would be about 0.86 miles long.

The idea of creating an ice wall is not new. In 1997, a mining company in Ontario, Canada, proposed an ice wall for a gold mine they were working on in order to reduce the amount of groundwater entering the mine. The ice wall was under construction when gold prices dipped, causing the project to be abandoned. And in Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, an ice wall was built to block radioactive waste, but that was on a much smaller scale than the Fukushima ice wall.

Atsunao Marui, an expert at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, said that the ice wall may not be the best solution for dealing with the contaminated water.

"We still need a few layers of safety backups in case it fails," Marui said. "Plus the frozen wall won't be ready for another two years, which means contaminated water would continue to leak out."

In addition to the ice wall, the Japanese government proposed a $150-million water treatment unit which would remove radioactive elements from contaminated water. TEPCO currently is dealing with enough contaminated water to fill 130 Olympic-sized pool. The decommissioning of the Fukushima plant is expected to take up to 40 years.

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