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Fukushima Efforts Still Moving as Slow as a Dead Snail

Once again Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) is struggling with a new attempt to contain radioactive waste at the Fukushima nuclear power plant after a tsunami destroyed it three years ago. But come on, so little can be accomplished in three years, right? Well, it only took two years to build the Empire State Building, a few weeks for Columbus to cross the Atlantic, and about five minutes for Justin Bieber to fall from grace. I’ll admit those comparisons aren’t exactly fair, but this nuclear disaster has been going on long enough, and there seems to be no improvements thus far.

The latest strategy giving Tepco trouble is the ice wall. Last year Tepco announced it would use the relatively unknown technology of burying freezing pipes deep into the ground, which freeze the soil to prevent runoff in either direction. This was supposed to keep radioactive waste from mixing with groundwater, but as with every other effort, the company is running into roadblocks.

According to Tepco, the first process of making a smaller inner ice wall is proving more difficult than anticipated because the ground water already contains contaminants, and the pipes can’t get cold enough. A company spokesperson said, “We have yet to form the ice stopper because we can’t make the temperature low enough to freeze water.” The pipes are supposed to be filled with coolant at -30C (-22F).

Relief efforts are also running into trouble, because no one realized how many pipes would be needed. The ice wall process has been implemented before, but on a much smaller scale, so it wasn’t clear how many pipes would be needed for a project of this magnitude. Now, the company has to wait even longer to get everything rolling. The company said, “We are behind schedule but have already taken additional measures, including putting in more pipes, so that we can remove contaminated water from the trench starting next month.” After three years though, what’s another month?

The biggest issue Tepco is encountering is what to do with the growing amount of radioactive water. Once they can contain it, the company will need to figure out how to dispose of the water used to keep the broken reactors cool. Tepco has contracted a US firm to help filter the 400,000 metric tons of water before returning it to sea, but there has been no confirmation as to when this process will be complete.

Scientists working on the project estimate it will take several decades to clean up the plant. If several decades seem like a long time, it’s because it is. Just think about all that could be accomplished within the next several decades: solar could be the world’s main power source, there could be a transcontinental train, and maybe Justin Bieber will be president (just kidding, he’s Canadian!).

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