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Fukushima nuclear plant is leaking like a sieve

Fukushima 24 May.jpgAs more details leak out about the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, it’s become clear that something else is leaking—radioactive water from the cores of three damaged reactors.

Leaks have been a persistent problem at the plant since it was struck by an earthquake and tsunami on 11 March. Three reactors operating at the time of the quake went into meltdown after the tsunami wiped out emergency generators designed to circulate water through the cores. TEPCO recently admitted that all three units probably suffered complete meltdowns before workers could flood them with seawater.

Since then, reactor operators have kept water flowing to the cores and several fuel storage pools above the reactors. That same water appears to be flowing out into the basements of buildings and eventually the Pacific Ocean, where environmentalists and scientists have raised concerns about possible contamination.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which runs the plant, hoped to rectify the problem by pumping water into storage tanks until it can be reprocessed, but today Reuters reports that the storage tanks appear to be leaking.

And that’s just the start of the bad news because the reactors themselves appear to be leaking as well. TEPCO initially hoped that the leaks were largely coming from pipes that could be repaired, but they now concede that both the reactors’ pressure vessels and primary containment vessels, which are designed to contain an accident, are probably leaking water.

The leaks will probably force TEPCO to abandon its plans to set up a recirculation system that can cool the reactor cores. That’s a serious blow to efforts to bring the reactors to a safe temperature within months. Recirculation is far more efficient (and less radioactive) than simply dumping water into the cores. A new plan posted on 17 May seems to indicate that TEPCO will instead try to recirculate water from the basements of the damaged buildings into he reactor cores. It would be better than nothing, but a far cry from a closed loop efficiently cooling the reactors.

Fukushima shift supervisor.jpgMeanwhile, new questions are being raised about the early hours following the accident. Logs seem to indicate chaos inside the control room, and indecision from company managers who were perhaps worried about the financial loss they would face if the reactors were ruined with seawater. A story in The Daily Yomiuri implicates prime minister Naoto Kan in the delays as well.

TEPCO has also released a preliminary report on the tsunami, which has previously unseen pictures of the damage (p. 15) and some pretty chilling snapshots of conditions in the plant before power was restored (p.71). Think gasmasks and flashlights.

Given all these problems it may be no surprise that some scientists are simply floating the idea of turning Fukushima into a nuclear graveyard. It would be a simple solution, but given the plant’s location on the coast, storing the waste there for millenia may be unrealistic.

For full coverage of the Fukushima disaster, go to Nature’s news special.

For a selection of our coverage in Japanese, see Nature Asia Pacific.

Images: TEPCO


  1. Report this comment

    James Aach said:

    I post this as a source for further perspective on the Fukushima incident and nuclear power in general:

    The novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The author has worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. Readers report the book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person. The novel is free online at the moment at . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments – there have been a lot, and they’ve been uniformly positive. One of the interesting things about modern nuclear power is that few really understand how it works day to day — including most scientists and journalists who are commenting to the media on the topic.

  2. Report this comment

    Uncle Al said:

    Megacuries of long-lived radioisotopes are riding the Oyashio then Kuroshio currents into Pacific fisheries, as a pipeline. They are not “diluting.”×217.jpg

    Past January 2012 there will be a surprise crisis for feeding the Pacfic Rim. One anticipates the Official Truth of “harmless elevated radiation levels.”

  3. Report this comment

    Carlyle Loochan said:

    I read your article very carefully and i believe that you have just scratched the tip of an iceberg.

    I cannot believe that the Japanese government did not take a better approach to protect it’s people. I understand the ramifications of not trying to create a panic amongst it’s citizens. Citizens lives is of the utmost importance and I hope that strategic long range disaster planing is in the works by all governments throughout the world so that if another nuclear accident takes place, there will be a plan in place to protect its citizens.

  4. Report this comment

    nonplused said:

    Carlyle Loochan said:

    “Citizens lives is of the utmost importance”

    To who?

  5. Report this comment

    Giacinto Figini said:

    Following James Aach’s post I like to suggest another book (not a novel):

    Reactor Accidents by David Mosey

    Institutional failure in the nuclear industry

    Thank you very much to Nature for the continuos informations.

    My best regards

  6. Report this comment

    Lol said:

    If water isn’t working for the site, would sand be a solution?

  7. Report this comment

    Ashton Laker said:

    Man I remember when this first happened.. what a disaster.. glad it’s over though.

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