Chernobyl in the basement

TEPCO has released radiation figures for the 2700 t of water in the basement of unit 1 of the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant:

Tokyo Electric Power Co. <9501> said Monday that the amounts of radioactive materials in water at a reactor building of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant were about 10,000 times the normal levels for water inside a nuclear reactor.
The water, recently found in the basement of the No. 1 reactor building of the nuclear power plant, contained 30,000 becquerels of iodine-131 per cubic centimeter, 2.5 million becquerels of cesium-134 and 2.9 million becquerels of cesium-137.

(Jiji Press, 2011-05-30)

A total of 2700 t of water are estimated to be in the basement. That works out as 6.75E15 Bq = 6.75 PBq of Cs-134 and 7.83 PBq of Cs-137. For comparison, the total radioactive release from Chernobyl is estimated at 48 PBq of Cs-134 and 89 PBq of Cs-137. That means the water in the basement of unit 1 alone contains about one tenth of all the radioactivity released into the environment by the Chernobyl disaster. When the accident started, we were told that “Fukushima is no Chernobyl” because unlike the Soviet reactor its reactors had containments. Unfortunately, they didn’t work. All that radioactivity mentioned above is already outside of the containment, in a place that was never designed to be flooded with thousands of tons of radioactive water.

Units 2 and 3 are assumed to be in equally bad shape as unit 1, as both suffered a meltdown and neither of those units’ containments still hold any pressure. All three units have flooded basements. Water in a trench near unit 2 was measured at 2 million becquerels of cesium-137 per cubic centimeters on March 30, quite similar in contamination to the unit 1 basement.

When people first entered unit 1 again on May 13, the water level in the basement of unit was reported to be 4.2 m. Two weeks later it is 4.6 m and the storage tanks at the reactor site are almost full. Very soon something needs to happen about that water. To complicate things even more, June is the rainy season in Japan, when typhoons can dump huge amounts of water onto Japan.

The water treatment plant built by Areva is expected to start operating around the middle of this month. TEPCO quoted the cost of decontaminating water with this system at 210,000 yen per ton (about US$2600). It intends to decontaminate 250,000 tons of water by the middle of January 2012, for a total cost of 53.1 billion yen (about US$650 million).

Currently 5 cubic meters per hour (m3/h) are being pumped into unit 1 for cooling, 4.9 m3/h into unit 2 and 12.5 m3/h into unit 3 (which is still overheating). That’s about 550 tons of water per day, which is assumed to leak into the basements of the three reactors, loaded with dissolved radioactive waste from damaged fuel rods. If cooling water feeds continue at current rates, there will be another 8,000 tons of highly radioactive water to be taken care of by the time AREVA’s treatment plant starts up — that is, if all goes according to plan…

A “mega-float” that has been towed to the site for storing and transporting radioactive water can probably only be used for decontaminated water (i.e. with 99.9% of the radioactivity removed), otherwise radiation would be too high to handle. Contaminated water being pumped from the basement of the turbine buildings to storage tanks gives off so much radiation that the piping is covered up with lead wool wherever people have to walk over it and is cordoned off with security tape everywhere else.

If a water pump fails and it has to be replaced, someone will have to disconnect and reconnect pipes to pumps that carry billions of becquerels of radioactivity per liter of water. There will be leaks and puddles and spills. This is not how things would be done if there was any choice.

Fukushima 1 may not make the headlines of the world media much any more, but the situation there is still nightmarish. It’s not the TEPCO managers who are paying for their company’s gross negligence, but unnamed workers of hired subcontractors who are risking their lives and health.

The cleanup and compensation for thousands who lost their homes and incomes through the fallout far exceeds TEPCO’s ability to pay, so tax payers will be forced to pay the bill, yet the government chose not to force TEPCO into bankruptcy. Its share price may have fallen, but its stock did not become worthless as say General Motors in the US car industry bail-out, or perhaps the crops grown by farmers nearby or the now deserted homes owned by families around the plant. TEPCO’s well-connected shareholders were effectively bailed out by the government at our expense.

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2 thoughts on “Chernobyl in the basement

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  2. Pingback: The 105,000 ton cleanup

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