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Tepco Decontamination to Produce Radioactive Sludge Crisis

Tepco Faces Radioactive Sludge Crisis
A handout photograph shows tanks being installed at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station in Fukushima, Japan, on Thurday, June 9, 2011. Source: Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Bloomberg

Tokyo Electric Power Co., which is struggling to contain the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, has another crisis on its hands: finding storage for enough radioactive sludge to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The utility known as Tepco plans to start decontaminating millions of liters of water poured over melted reactors after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems. By the end of the year it expects to have 2,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive sludge separated from the water, said Teruaki Kobayashi, a nuclear facility manager at Tepco.

“We haven’t determined a final disposal site for the waste,” Kobayashi said in an interview yesterday. “Our priorities are decontaminating radioactive water and maintaining cooling efforts.”

Tepco has yet to say how much radiation has been released by the crippled reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in the three months since the meltdowns started. Government tests in May showed radioactive soil in pockets of areas outside a 20-kilometer (12 mile) exclusion zone around the plant have reached the same level as Chernobyl, where a “dead zone” remains since a reactor exploded in 1986.

Radiation from the plant has spread over 600 square kilometers, according to a report by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan.

No Restroom

The sludge will be put in tanks at the station, where three reactors melted, and moved to a temporary storage unit in December, Kobayashi said. About 105 million liters (28 million gallons) of contaminated water lies in basements and trenches at Fukushima and Tepco expects the amount to almost double by the end of the year.

“Dealing with this type of sludge waste is something Japan never expected and not having the final disposal facilities is akin to building a condominium without a toilet,” said Ken Nakajima, a professor of nuclear engineering at Kyoto University. “It will likely have to be stored at the Fukushima plant for several years,” he said.

The company delayed the start of operations of the decontamination unit supplied by Areva SA to June 17, Junichi Matsumoto, a general manager at Tepco, said yesterday. The delay was announced as more workers at the plant are registering dangerous levels of radiation.

Cancer Risk

The utility yesterday said six workers may have been exposed to radiation exceeding the government’s annual limit of 250 millisieverts for atomic plant staff, bringing the total to eight who have crossed the threshhold.

Two of the workers may have received double the 250 millisievert limit, or a level that increases the risk of cancer, according to the World Nuclear Association. The findings are based on preliminary assessments of 2,367 of 3,726 people who worked at the plant in March, Junichi Matsumoto, the utility’s general manager said.

Radiation in the water is estimated at 720,000 tera becquerels, Matsumoto said at a media briefing in Tokyo on June 3. That’s almost as much as the latest estimate of the radiation released into the air in the five days after March 11.

At Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear disaster, 5.2 million tera becquerels of radiation was discharged, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said on April 12.

Most of the water poured over the reactors has overflowed or leaked into basements, connecting tunnels and service trenches at the plant, which has six reactors housed in separate buildings. The plant is about 220 kilometers north of Tokyo.


The failure of the cooling systems for reactors and water pools storing spent fuel rods led to explosions and fires at the Fukushima plant, generating a radiation plume that forced the evacuation of more than 50,000 households and contaminated drinking water and food. Tepco has also discharged radiated water into the ocean.

Seawater taken near the plant has a level of radioactive strontium as much as 240 times the legal limit, broadcaster NHK reported on its website yesterday, citing the utility.

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