March 19th, 2014 by Sandy Dechert
Still dealing with the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and three meltdowns at its Fukushima I nuclear power complex, Tokyo Electric Power Company had more bad news yesterday about its Fukushima ALPS cleanup efforts. One of the three vaunted advanced water filtering systems was not purifying contaminated water as designed. It has only been a week since TEPCO last interrupted testing of the new multiple nuclide removal system. The system is not yet fully online. It remains on an extended “hot” test run, treating less than 200 tons of wastewater per day.
Japan Times reports:
“Tokyo Electric Power Co. halted the operations of all three advanced radioactive water cleanup systems, collectively called Advanced Liquid Processing System, or ALPS, at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant on Tuesday. Tepco made the decision after it found that one of the systems, called B, was not functioning properly. Water samples from System B on Monday showed that levels of beta ray-emitting radioactive substances, such as strontium-90, only dropped to several tens of millions of becquerels from several hundred million becquerels, instead of decreasing to several hundred becquerels [as expected]. Tepco suspended water decontamination work with the other two systems [A and C] as well due to concerns about similar problems.”
The blogspot GSBuzz quotes this email TEPCO reportedly sent to the press:
“We’ve been conducting the ‘hot’ test of the multi-nuclide removal system ALPS using the waste water after it is processed in the contaminated water treatment systems. Today (3/18/2014), one of the three lines, Line B, [was] stopped at 12:04PM to acid-clean the filters. Also today, we noted that the nuclide analysis of the water treated by Line B (collected on March 17) showed [that] there is a possibility that the treatment by ALPS is not adequate [to remove all-beta radiation]. As a precaution, we stopped Line A at 1:38PM and Line C at 1:39PM.”
The Fukushima ALPS decontamination procedure is only part of the initial discharge suppression segment of TEPCO’s stabilization plan. The company has issued an unprecedented 10 news releases, mostly water sampling reports, over the past three days. The cause of the malfunction and its seriousness have not yet been assessed.
Problems with ALPS from the get-go
For a system not yet through its testing stages, TEPCO’s Fukushima ALPS has experienced a long and incident-ridden implementation. It’s not the only system for treating contaminated water on the Fukushima site. The process actually starts with filtration to remove oil, cesium removal by adsorption, another filter for preventing adsorbent leaks, and desalination through reverse osmosis membrane treatment and evaporative condensation. About 400 cubic meters a day are recirculated to cool the cores of the offline but still radioactive reactors.
The rest, still highly contaminated, passes through effluent tanks into the ALPS. The three-channel system is supposed to treat wastewater high in all-beta radiation and guarantee that 62 radionuclides are within acceptable levels. It does not affect concentrations of tritium, however. (Even if Fukushima ALPS is stopped, cooling the reactors and the other water treatments must continue.) The following chronology has been assembled for this report from TEPCO documents, news releases, media coverage, and newsblogging about Fukushima.
TEPCO reported design plans to install its Advanced Liquid Processing System to lower radioactivity concentrations in previously processed water in February of 2012. The basic test showed that radionuclides and particles could be removed to a level below detectable limits. On April 1 the company began foundation work. It hoped to introduce the Fukushima ALPS in the first half of FY 2012, but Japan abolished its Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency under allegations of malfeasance and replaced it with the Nuclear Regulation Authority in September 2012. NRA demanded additional safety tests and the ALPS hot tests were delayed.
Since starting the trial run in March 2013, the system hasn’t worked without some troubling intermissions. Leaks were discovered in the system’s tanks in June, which led to the first stoppage. On September 27 the initial “hot testing” resumed in channel C, but it had to stop 22 hours later, when equipment had problems discharging mud, possibly due to a human error that blocked the system.
TEPCO’s October report to investors brightly stated that cleansing of the contaminated tank water would be accelerated by “purifying” it through the ALPS system, but problems continued. At the end of February, one of the three Fukushima ALPS channels had to be suspended due to a ground fault. Another channel malfunctioned on March 6 because of an overloaded booster pump (human error again). TEPCO was reportedly unaware that the operation would cause the pump overload.
When it begins working at full capacity, ALPS will be able to process 750 tons of contaminated water every day. This capability will make it key in controlling the ongoing radioactive water crisis at Fukushima. “The company aims to finish processing contaminated water at the plant, including some 340,000 tons currently kept in storage tanks, by the end of next March (2015),” Japanese media report. “To accomplish this, it plans to expand the capacity of ALPS. The government also plans to develop a high-performance version of ALPS that leaves less radioactive waste than the current system.” Voice of Russia reports that preliminary estimates indicate that next March is realistic “only if the system is functioning properly.”
Cumulative radioactive water difficulties and what lies ahead
TEPCO has had problems with water at the site since the nuclear accident. They have included recurrent leaks of radiation, water in the basement levels, a huge and continuing influx of groundwater, slightly radioactive water gathering under the wastewater treatment facility, more radioactive water in a tunnel containing electric cables, storage tanks leaking contaminated water, typhoon-related rainwater overflow causing more leaks, groundwater contamination, radioactive contamination of the ocean, and travel of released cesium into the power complex port and across the Pacific to the North American West Coast.
Although the advanced liquid processing system, which is supposed to remove radioactive materials from contaminated water, works well for other radionuclides, it cannot remove tritium. TEPCO has stated that “there is a technology to separate highly concentrated tritium, but since concentration of tritium contained in liquid waste at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is much lower, it is difficult to separate it. However, the technology to remove tritium will continue to be examined including overseas knowledge.”
Put bluntly, the company has not decided yet what to do with the tritium-contaminated water processed by the Fukushima ALPS.
February revealed yet another deception by the utility about the Fukushima cleanup: TEPCO apparently hid dangerous Fukushima radiation levels (in particular, strontium-90 readings) for months.
On Monday, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano recommended dumping some of the contaminated water into the ocean. He feels that continuing to store the water is not a realistic strategy. Voice of America reports Amano as saying:
“This is not a long-term solution. In order to avoid the potential difficulties, we recommend Japan to consider the option to release the water after treating it properly, ensuring that it satisfies the Japanese standard after consulting with the stakeholders like the local community.”
Other problems include whether a large, publicly financed project is necesary to handle TEPCO’s problems, an inadequately trained workforce onsite, participation by criminal groups, and government censorship alleged by Japanese academics. Struggles also abound about new nuclear generation in Japan. The conservative Liberal Democrat leadership has challenges from other groups, including the past administration, irate citizens, and the people of Fukushima prefecture.
Lack of national funding for necessary environmental studies is another concern. The New York Times quotes University of South Carolina biology prof Timothy A. Mousseau, who has made three research trips to Japan since the meltdowns: “They’re putting trillions of yen into moving dirt around and almost nothing into environmental assessment.” Finally, Japan and the rest of the world are suffering from mass speculation, rumor, and emotional innuendo about about the reach and danger of Fukushima’s radiation and the many aspects of the long decommissioning process.
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