Ice Follies

“Men still have to be governed by deception”. (Georg C. Lichtenberg)

“Public relations is our best promotion or manipulation and at our worst evasion and outright deception. What it is never about is free flow of information”. (Heather Brooke)

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know, what you know, what you know. You are the one who will decide where to go”. (Dr.Suess)

Those of the “don’t worry they’ll think of something” school of reasoning, might find Japan’s latest scheme for containing the ongoing radioactive emissions from their triple meltdown and tsunami disaster of 3/11, of interest. However, nuclear experts are already casting doubts upon plans to construct a giant underground “ice wall” to surround their crippled Fukushima facility, designed to function like a subterranean dam, in an admittedly desperate bid to halt ongoing leaks of contaminated water from also admittedly lethal, melted corium. Any such a project can be expected to cost at least 47 billion yen (470 million dollars) , take at least two years to build and then another year before it can be expected to function. While this proposal may sound like a Dr. Suess engineered confabulation, frozen barrier containment actually exists as a proven soil containment technology in mining and underground tunnel construction. However, both the size of this nearly mile long, proposed frozen earth, and its expected duration, is entirely unprecedented. To date, the only place in the world where cryogenic barrier technology was used to contain radioactive waste was in Tennessee at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

This proposed method requires freeze pipes, made from normal steel, to be sunk into the ground at regular intervals and some type of coolant then fed into the pipes. Then, up on the surface, an electrically generated refrigerator chills this liquid which is pumped down into these pipes. As ice slowly forms in columns around the pipes, it spreads out, linking these columns; eventually forming a theoretically, impenetrable wall. For containment to succeed, it is essential that the ice extend all the way down to bedrock so that this frozen wall can form a kind of box, together with solid bedrock at the bottom. (Alexis C. Madrigal, “How to Build an Ice Wall Around a Nuclear Reactor”, theatlantic.com, May 7, 2014).

Here it important to note that the Fukushima Daiichi complex is not only lacking in solid bed rock, it was constructed upon landfill material which might be likened to a geologic consistency equivalent to tofu. While the Oak Ridge ice wall was installed in 1997 with an expectation that it would last at least 15 years, it was dismantled after only six. A less than transparent explanation offers only a brief statement that plant managers had “decided to move forward” with a different soil remediation project. Further details are likely “classified”.
Fukushima’s lack of solid bedrock is only one of many reasons why nuclear experts, as well as soil and hydrologic engineers, have doubts about the efficacy of ice wall containment for lethal nuclear waste. While costs may be daunting, and overruns expected, a soil freezing project on this scale has never been attempted; nor able to function for any long term duration. And, hydrology of this coastal site is quite complex, since the damaged reactors were built on a slope beneath mountains which provide seasonal run off from snow melt; on top of a major aquifer, with a river running through it. Moreover, given that this site is exposed to an average of four million tons of rainfall, it should not be surprising that these crippled, partially toppled reactor remains, are now swimming in increasingly mushy mud, which now approximates the consistency of something like oatmeal. As the volume of contaminated ground water continues to rise, there is serious concern that the collapsing ruins of Daichii might actually sink. (enenews.com, April 21, 2014) Given the increasingly liquid soil consistency and unstable geologic substrata, it becomes increasingly evident as to why any heavy concrete sarcophagus, such as the hastily constructed, ineffective shield at Ukraine’s (still leaking) Chernobyl facility, is not, and never will be, a viable option. Work on the new shield is seriously behind schedule and the situation further complicated by recent political turmoil throughout the region.

Critics of the ice wall proposal have expressed a number of other concerns, including doubts about any power source able to maintain this frosty wall for hundreds of years would also need to be able to withstand both earthquakes and tsunamis.
One of those expressing concern about the untested assumptions of the ice wall project is Dale Klein, former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman and current head of the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee hired by TEPCO. Klein told Kyodo News: “What I am concerned about is unintended consequences”.
(Andrea Germanos, commondreams.org, May 2, 2014).

Even if the ice wall were to be at least somewhat effective, it would do nothing to mitigate the ongoing radioactive steam released into the atmosphere. And, the fact remains that portions of this site remains too radioactive for even robots to approach. So for now, the genie is still out of the bottle. Every day, at least 300-400 hundred tons of radioactive water is being dumped into the Pacific Ocean and this has been going on since March 2011 with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is travelling the globe hawking the wonders of his country’s superior nuclear technology. Last year, Abe signed a 22 billion dollar agreement with Mitubishi to build Turkey’s second nuclear plant. (Bloomberg.com, 2013/06/07). More recently French President Francois Hollande was so impressed that he agreed to “deepen co-operation on nuclear reactor exports.” In the U.K., Toshiba is proceeding with plans to manage Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority where the company plans to build three new reactors at the Sellafield site. This nuclear complex, formerly named Windscale is located in North West Britain along the Cumbrian coast. The surrounding area has the highest concentration of radioactivity on our planet.

Sellafield has a history of numerous nuclear accidents and this facility has rendered the Irish Sea one of Earth’s most contaminated bodies of water. Sellafield’s effluents include millions of gallons of radioactive water – a lethal cocktail of over 30 alpha, beta and gamma radionuclides, which have also invaded the waters of the Arctic and Northern Canada. Discharges of Sellafield krypton have even been measured off the coast of Miami. Currently, there are 73 reactors under construction in 15 countries scheduled to join 400 nuclear facilities operating in 30 countries. (ukguardian.com, March 18, 2011).

What could possibly go wrong? No need to worry though, I am sure they’ll think of something.

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