Fukushima, the Ice Wall Cometh

Fukushima, the Ice Wall Cometh

They call it the “ice wall”, and its whole purpose in life is to prevent radioactive-laden groundwater around the Fukushima (Japan) Daiishi Nuclear Power Plant from seeping into the surrounding ocean.


On Friday, March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake struck central Japan, and the Fukushima Daiichi, a six-unit boiling water reactor (BWR), automatically shut down three of its six segments. The other three were already offline. 

The reactors remained intact and might have been restored to operation over time if not for the subsequent tsunami. This flooded approximately 215 square miles and stranded remediation efforts until – at one point in 2015 – about 700,000 tons of water stood in storage at the site. Standing water also damaged the reactors, and former hopes of recovery have turned instead to decommissioning once the radioactive water is contained. 

Most of the water, laced with cesium-134, 137, and strontium-90, continues to be filtered and released. Of the three radioactive elements, the last is the greatest health concern; cesium-134 has a half-life of two years, cesium-137 a half- life of 30 years. Only Fukushima Unit 3 was fueled by plutonium-based MOX (mixed oxide) fuel. Units 1, 2, and 4 operated on low enriched uranium, or LEU. 

According to Woods Hole researchers testing late in 2015 along the U.S. West Coast, cesium-134 was 1.4 Becquerels per cubic meter, and cesium-137 was 5.8 Becquerels per cubic meter. Both were more than 500 times lower than U.S. government safety limits for drinking water. In fact, as one researcher calculated, “You’d need to swim six hours a day for a thousand years to get the radiation equivalent of a dental X-ray.”



Since then, TEPCOTokyo Electric Power Co., Fukushima's owner - has managed to construct a giant refrigeration system based on geothermal heat and cooling principles that forms a wall of frozen soil around the contaminated area, effectively preventing contaminated water from leaking from the damaged and submerged reactors into the ocean. 

Pipes buried about 100 feet (30 meters) underground form a nearly mile-long (1.5-kilometer) wall around the reactor and turbine building. These pipes connect to refrigeration plants, which circulate chilled fluid (-22 Fahrenheit, -30 Celsius) to freeze the ground. 

The ice wall cost $312 million (35 billion yen). Operational costs over the lifetime of the wall could conceivably cost $9 billion. Operating the ice wall 24/7 produces about 2,778 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per year. The average car produces 3.5 times that much in a typical year.

The technology isn’t new. Used in mining, tunneling, and construction – during extensive excavations for very tall buildings – it has been around since the 1950s. A classic example would be the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where – in 1996 – a temporary ice wall was used to prevent radioactive waste from seeping into a nearby creek. 

Fukushima’s ice wall was originally ramped up in August of 2014 and almost immediately declared a failure by critics and the media, who failed to grasp the scope of the problem. Engineers persisted. By October of 2015, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers – the most prestigious engineering trade group in the world – had declared it a cautious success.



On Wednesday, March 30, 2016, Japanese nuclear power regulators approved turning on the ice wall, after delays and expensive failures --the largest onthe magnitude of the $270 million for a water decontamination system from French nuclear firm Areva. Not only did the solution never operate to capacity, but it worked for only 90 days and decontaminated a mere 77,000 tons of liquid – or about ten percent of the total. At this point, the main concern of experts is that the system may eventually work too well, locking up area groundwater.


Looking Forward 

The accident did nothing to recommend nuclear energy to an increasingly energy-hungry world which has also, and almost simultaneously, begun to reject more pollutive forms of electricity generation like coal and oil. 

In terms of negative effects on human health – and in spite of the three major global nuclear energy events (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima) – nuclear energy still prevents more deaths than coal, oil, and even gas. Estimates suggest that nuclear energy prevents an estimated 15,000 premature deaths per yearin the U.S. alone. 

These potential deaths, from coal plant emissions like uranium and thorium, peripheral particulates like radium and radon, and hundreds of pounds of uranium-235, make burning coal one hundred times more radioactive than nuclear energy. 

In addition, the predicted costs of “cleaning up” former coal mining sites has experts worried that taxpayers will be stuck “with millions, if not billions” in costs because financially strapped coal companies can no longer afford to do so. 

Throw in coal fly ash – a byproduct used in everything from cement and brick to road surfaces –and the nation has a health crisis waiting to happen as aging roads and buildings release their toxic contents. The difference is, radiation problems tend to draw immediate attention. The toll from burning coal may not be apparent for a century.


The Argument 

The U.S., of all developed nations, could benefit most from nuclear energy. Norway, Iceland – even Paraguay – are small enough to take the 100-percent renewable energy route and get to the goal quickly. This is much less true in America, where the sheer size, variable climate, and diverse, aging electrical grids make integrating renewable energy difficult, costly, and time-consuming.

Natural gas is a good interim generating fuel, but it is still a “fossil” fuel and – while only about half as pollutive as coal in terms of carbon dioxide emissions (the driving force behind global warming) – it is much higher in methane, which is 25 times as powerful in forcing climate change. 

Fear of nuclear energy is understandable. Smog, particulate matter, soot, and smoke are visible: radioactive particles are not. If nuclear energy has a downside, especially in the U.S., it is the cost of keeping aging plants operational into their third and even fourth renewal cycle. Better, perhaps, would be if the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission stopped dragging its feet and allowed common sense to supersede lobbying, so that nuclear energy can take its proper place in the 21st century, as a baseload power source alongside renewables like solar and wind. 

Most important, technological advances in nuclear energy can now deliver portable, scalable nuclear power systems that are so carefree in operation they might almost be considered “huggable”

As former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, writing for Fortune, noted: 

“Although many misconceptions persist about the safety record of nuclear power facilities, the truth of the matter is that 61 nuclear power facilities in the country have been safely operating for more than 50 years. U.S. nuclear power plants have been a model of U.S. industrial safety for more than 50 years, powering communities, keeping the air clean and fueling state and local economies.” 

TEPCO officials hope the ice wall will stop most of the flow of groundwater into the area and allow the turbine basements to be dried by 2020, confining the contamination to the three melted reactors. 

Better and more cost effective remediation and decommissioning technologies are imperative if we are to accept nuclear energy as a power source. Success with the Fukushima ice wall may help chip away at the negative public perception and fears that continue to plague the nuclear industry.


Companies to Watch: 

Fluor Corporation (NYSE: FLR) An expert in decommissioning and decontamination, Fluor's nuclear business line has increasingly focused on nuclear new build and existing reactor capital projects and maintenance. As the majority investor in NuScale Power, Fluor continues to show the company's commitment to nuclear innovation and development. 

Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC, parent company Toshiba Corporation (OTC: TOSBF), supplies the nuclear energy industry with nuclear services, fuels, and power plants. It provides design work and start-up help for new nuclear power plants and makes many of the components. 

BWX Technologies (NYSE: BWXT) a big name in the global nuclear energy market, got even bigger when in 2015 the U.S. finally agreed to sell nuclear energy technology to India. More recently, BWXT engaged with Lightbridge Corporation. 

Lightbridge Corporation (NASDAQ: LTBR)engages in next-generation nuclear fuel solutions for current and future nuclear reactors. Its current solution is shorter-length fuel rods for BWXT reactor designs.

Jeanne Roberts is an award winning freelance writer covering the environment, sustainability, social justice, health, politics, and the natural world. She has roots in the corporate world as a California reporter and a communications specialist at a large public utility and has spent the past 10 years working as an editor for a small-cap stock site, and as an environmental/political/social justice blogger for The PanelistCelsias,Cooler PlanetDeSmogBlogEnergy BoomSolveClimate.com, the Clean Tech Blog,EarthTechling, and various other online publications. Ms. Roberts has written a book on alternative energy sources, sustainable home building, and environmental initiatives for homeowners available on Amazon.

Originally published on April 8, 2016