Japan cleanup of radioactive water hits snag

Japan cleanup of radioactive water hits snag

Tokyo: Japan’s crisis-hit nuclear power plant could spill more radioactive water into the sea within a week unless engineers can fix a glitch in a new system to clean up growing pools of contaminated water, officials said.

Tokyo Electric Power Co , known as Tepco, has pumped massive amounts of water to cool three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that went into meltdown after the 11 March earthquake and tsunami disabled cooling systems.

But managing the radioactive water has become a major headache as the plant runs out of places to keep it. Around 110,000 tonnes of highly radioactive water, enough to fill 40 Olympic-size swimming pools is stored at the plant.

Tepco, with help from French nuclear group Areva , US firm Kurion and other companies, has been test-running a system in which radioactive water is decontaminated and re-used to cool the reactors.

In a setback, however, it said water had leaked from a facility used to absorb cesium on Thursday, although it hoped to replace equipment and start the decontamination process by the end of Friday as planned.

“We think we can start the system by tonight," Tepco official Junichi Matsumoto said.

If the treatment system does not work, the complex could run out of space to store contaminated water as early as 20 June 2011, and it could then spill into the sea, Tepco has said.

The start of Japan’s month-long rainy season has also added to the risk of water buildup.

In early April, the utility dumped about 10,000 tonnes of water with low-level radioactivity into the ocean, prompting criticism from neighbours China and South Korea.

Even if the water treatment is successful, Tepco would next face the problem of dealing with highly radioactive sludge that will be left over from the decontamination process. It is unclear where the sludge will be stored in the long-term.

Despite the mounting challenges, Tepco aims to complete initial steps to limit the release of further radiation from the plant 240 km northeast of Tokyo and to shut down its three unstable reactors by January 2012.

It will present an update to those plans on Friday with no significant changes expected in the timeline.

The ultimate goal is to bring the reactors to a state of “cold shutdown", where the uranium at the core is no longer capable of boiling off the water used as a coolant.

That would allow officials to move on to cleaning up the site and eventually removing the fuel from the site, a process that could take more than a decade.