Nuclear cleanup at Fukushima stymied by radioactive coolant

By Mari Yamaguchi, AP

TOKYO–More than three years into Japan’s massive cleanup of the tsunami-damaged nuclear plant, only a tiny fraction of the workers are focused on the key tasks of dismantling the broken reactors and removing radioactive fuel rods.

Instead, nearly all the workers are devoted to a single, enormously distracting problem: coping with the vast amount of water that becomes contaminated after it is pumped into the reactors to keep the melted radioactive fuel inside from overheating. The Numbers Tell the Story.

Every day, some 6,000 workers pass through the guarded gate of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant located on the Pacific coast, two to three times more than when it was actually producing electricity.

But only about 100 of them are dismantling a makeshift roof over one of the reactor buildings, while about a dozen others are removing fuel rods from a cooling pool.

Most of the rest are dealing with contaminated water-related work, said Tatsuhiro Yamagishi, a spokesman for TEPCO, as the utility that owns the Fukushima plant is commonly known.

The work threatens to exhaust the supply of workers for other tasks, since they must stop working when they reach annual radiation exposure limits.

40 Years The plant has six reactors, three of which were offline when disaster struck on March 11, 2011 �X a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that triggered a huge tsunami, which swept into the plant and knocked out its cooling systems, leading to meltdowns at the three active reactors.

Decommissioning and dismantling all six of the reactors is a delicate, time-consuming process that includes removing the melted fuel from a highly radioactive environment as well as all the extra fuel rods, some of which sit in cooling pools situated at the top of the reactor buildings. The entire job is expected to take at least 40 years. 500,000 Tons Workers have jury-rigged a pipe-and-hose system to continuously pump water into the reactors to cool the clumps of melted fuel inside.

The water becomes contaminated upon exposure to the radioactive fuel, and much of it pours into the reactor basements and maintenance trenches that extend to the Pacific Ocean.

The plant recycles some of the contaminated water as cooling water after partially treating it, but groundwater is also flowing into the damaged reactor buildings and mixing with contaminated water, creating a huge excess that needs to be pumped out.