How Do You Clean Up After a Nuclear Disaster?

February 28, 2012

The events last March in Japan couldn’t have presented Japan with a more difficult task. After record-setting earthquake, a massive tsunami and a nuclear disaster comparable in scale only to the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, how do you wrap your head around making once-vibrant villages habitable again? Where do you even begin?

The Exclusion Zone

Currently, there’s a 20 km (12 mile) exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi. No one is allowed to live inside it, and workers are bused in at all hours of the day and night to work at the plant. The goal is for the 80,000 or so residents forced to evacuate to eventually be able to return.

Decontamination has never been done on such a large scale before. The only other nuclear accident to be rated a 7, the highest on the international scale, was Chernobyl in 1986 in Ukraine. In that case, the decision was made to evacuate the area — about 20 miles surrounding the plant — permanently. A protective sarcophagus was built around the plant, which is currently being updated because the original is crumbling.


What Needs to Be Done

First you have to stabilize the nuclear reactors while limiting the release of radioactive materials. In part this requires keeping the nuclear fuel cool, until temperatures in the reactors reach 100 degress Celsius or below — a point known as “cold shutdown.” Three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi reached this mark last December, though because of leaks, a half-million liters of water is still being pumped in each day.

Because of the initial flooding after the tsunami, and the gallons and gallons of water injected into the the reactors, there was — and likely still is — radioactive water in the reactors. A lot of it. “In the case of Three Mile Island [in Pennsylvania], we had about half a million gallons of very highly radioactive water in the basement of the containment building,” Lake Barrett, a nuclear engineer who coordinated the cleanup at Three Mile Island, told NPR. “It was about 10 feet deep. They’re facing the same situation in Fukushima, but they have three of these cores that have severe damage to them, so they probably have tens of millions of gallons of the same highly radioactive water that they’re dealing with.”

A few weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, for example, radiation levels in the water in the basement of reactor 2 were measured at 1,000 millisieverts per hour. Nuclear workers aren’t allowed doses over 20 millisieverts a year; 1,000 can result in radiation sickness and nausea. [For more on measuring radiation, here’s The Guardian’s handy cheat-sheet.] A recent video taken by TEPCO of the inside of reactor 2 did not reveal the amount of radioactive water in the containment vessel, though it did detect corroded piping and dripping humidity.

Then there are the reactor cores, where the generation of nuclear energy happens. It five years before workers at Three Mile Island even got a glimpse of the core at the damaged reactor; 30 percent of it had melted. It will likely be even more difficult and time-consuming at Fukushima Daiichi given the number of reactors and the extensive damage to each.

Dirt and vegetation are also issues for the clean-up: In order to cut radioactivity in half over the next two years, about 4 centimeters of topsoil needs to be removed from farms around Fukushima prefecture. In total, it’s enough soil to fill 20 football stadiums. It’s estimated that radioactive waste in Fukushima city alone could fill 10 baseball stadiums.

Radiation particles can be sticky — meaning they’re tough to get rid of.  This means that trees, grass, plants and soil need to be removed and disposed of entirely. Because of this, cleanup work can resemble ordinary yard work, aside from the protective suits and masks.


Who’s Doing the Work?

There really aren’t experts in the field of nuclear decontamination. Japan’s government recently handed out $13 billion in contracts (some of which went to the same companies that built the country’s nuclear power plants) to begin cleaning and to find best practices.

The actual cleaning, however, is “being carried out by numerous subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, who in turn rely on untrained casual laborers to do the dirtiest contamination work.”

Some of these “casual laborers” — sometimes known as nuclear gypsies — work directly inside the crippled plant. Salaries can range from $80 to $500 a day, though some have reported higher offerings, and most contractors work two hours a day because of radioactivity. (This does not include the time spent being transported to the plant, clothed in protective gear, etc.)

This two-tiered system — company executives and engineers on the top, with contract employees on the bottom — is common in Japan’s nuclear industry, dating back to the 1970s. Physics professor Yuko Fujita described it as “the hidden world of nuclear power” to The New York Times; in 2010, for example, 88 percent of workers at Japan’s 18 nuclear plants were contractors.

In the month following the earthquake and tsunami, TEPCO reported that 45 of the 300 workers at the Fukushima Daichii plant were contractors. By July, the plant had almost 3,000 workers — and only 373 were TEPCO employees.

Many of these workers are exposed to radiation levels that are much higher than the top-tier employees. The Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a watchdog group in Japan, found that contractors received 96 percent of the harmful radiation among plant workers in the country. In addition, the temporary employees were exposed to radiation at rates 16 percent higher than TEPCO employees.

These workers often don’t have health insurance, pensions or other similar benefits.

In addition to TEPCO workers and contractors, some community groups outside the exclusion zone have shunned the government cleanup process in favor of organizing local cleanups themselves.

And then there are the robots. Removing the fuel that’s melted inside the reactors is particularly challenging and dangerous. The government has said this will require robots and other types of technology that don’t yet exist. The hope is to have the robots ready by 2013.


The Cost

“Even if Japan’s nuclear crisis is contained, its earthquake and tsunami now seem certain to be, economically speaking, among the worst national disasters in history, with total losses potentially as high as two hundred billion dollars,” wrote The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki just weeks after the disaster. Another estimate right after the disaster placed the cost closer to 25 trillion yen, or $300 billion — four times the cost of cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina. In addition, containing and cleaning any radioactive material could cost $10 billion alone

TEPCO is dealing with its own financial woes. Once on the verge of bankruptcy, the government recently received a government bailout that has the potential to reach $137 billion.

There are also accusations that companies are taking advantage of government contracts for decontamination work. “It’s a scam,” Kiyoshi Sakurai, a critic of Nuclear power, told The New York Times. “Decontamination is becoming big business.”

By comparison, the Three Mile Island cleanup cost almost $1 billion. Belarus estimates the total cost of resettlement, cleaning and sealing the Chernobyl reactor, and fulfilling medical claims to be $235 billion.


How Long Will It Take?

Last November, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission released its draft report, recommending a timeline that includes removing fuel rods from the reactors within 10 years and spent fuel within three. (By comparison, the fuel rods started to be removed from the damaged Three Mile Island reactor six years after the meltdown in 1979.) The report estimated the full clean-up will take 30 t 40 years.

Removing fuel that has melted in the Fukushima Daichii reactors will likely take 25 years. Decommissioning the plant will add another five to 10 years to this process. By comparison, decontaminating after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 took 14 years.


The Storage Problem

Where do you put radioactive materials, ranging from spent fuel rods to contaminated vegetation to the 480,000 protective suits worn by workers? Japan’s government is currently working to establish long-term storage facilities, which will last about 30 years, but it estimates that their construction will take at least three more years. In the meantime, individual communities outside the exclusion zone are left with the task of storing radioactive waste.

Some experts are concerned about the tactics some are using. For example, some schools are putting contaminated soil in holes lined with plastic. The problem? Radioactive materials can leak through plastic.

Much of the nuclear waste from Three Mile Island was shipped to Idaho to be stored at the Department of Energy’s National Engineering Laboratory.

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