Tokyo Electric Power Co. looks likely to miss a deadline to filter out a cancer-causing radioactive isotope from water stored at its wrecked nuclear plant in Fukushima, according to Bloomberg News calculations.
Equipment delays and the failure to stop radiation contamination of groundwater indicates the utility’s president, Naomi Hirose, will be unable to meet a commitment he made to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September last year to treat all water at the site by March 31, 2015.
“We can only say we’ll make efforts to achieve that target,” Mayumi Yoshida, a spokeswoman for the utility known as Tepco, said Aug. 1 by phone. She was shown Bloomberg’s estimates that suggest filtering the isotope strontium out of stored water will take more time.
Strontium has been linked to leukemia and can enter the food chain by depositing into the bones of fish. Delays in the cleanup could extend a South Korean ban on Japanese seafood imports and add to calls in the U.S. for an international takeover of the Fukushima cleanup. They would also slow Tepco’s 40-year decommissioning of the plant by tying up resources needed for other tasks.
“The manpower and management attention could be deployed elsewhere,” said Michael Friedlander, a former nuclear engineer who spent 13 years operating U.S. plants. “They’re basically accumulating vast quantities of radioactive material that isn’t in control and they need to get it in control.”
Tepco is under orders by Japan’s trade ministry to meet the deadline, which corresponds with the end of Japan’s fiscal year, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today. He didn’t say what would be the consequences should Tepco fail to meet the deadline.
Levels of toxic water at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant are rising at a rate of 400 tons a day as groundwater seeping into basements mixes with water used to cool reactor cores that melted down in the accident on March 11, 2011. The site had more than 373,000 tons of radioactive water needing treatment as of July 29, Yoshida said.
Corrosion has delayed full use of a filtration system known as ALPS, which is designed to remove strontium and 61 other isotopes from 500 metric tons of water a day.
The system remains in testing while the company verifies a recent fix to filter out four isotopes it was failing to treat, Tepco said in a July 31 release. ALPS has so far reduced strontium levels in 115,000 tons of water, Yoshida said.
Tepco said a plan to divert groundwater into the sea to keep it from becoming contaminated in reactor basements has so far failed to measurably reduce amounts of irradiated water being put into storage. Tepco began using the diversion pipeline in May after gaining the approval of fishermen.
“The actual amount that has been reduced is difficult to tell, because there are lots of other causes like rainwater,” Yoshida said. “It’s going to take several months for the effects to be clear.”
The government said last year it would spend 15 billion yen ($146 million) to expand the ALPS system, which will allow it to process an additional 640 tons a day from September. Another ALPS-like system is scheduled to begin processing about 425 tons a day in October and a truck-mounted strontium-filtration system from U.S.-based Kurion Inc. will also be used.
Even with these additions, Tepco is unlikely to meet the March 2015 deadline, according to the Bloomberg calculations that were reviewed by Tepco.
Assuming all the filtration systems begin operation as scheduled and operate at full capacity, tens of thousands of tons of contaminated water would remain at the site by the March 31 deadline, according to the calculations.
Tepco still hopes to meet that deadline, aided by the Kurion system and a plan to add strontium-removal capabilities to an existing system that removes cesium, another radioactive particle, Yoshida said.
Both will require approval by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority.
The treatment systems are being evaluated, though it’s not known when they’ll be completed, Tadashi Yamada, a spokesman for the regulator, said in an e-mail.
Tepco is also repairing a network of underground pumps that predated the March 2011 disaster to reduce the amounts of water being contaminated. It doesn’t have a date for completing that work, Yoshida said.
“We are doing everything we can do,” she said.