NEW YORK/HOUSTON (Reuters) - Workers struggling to prevent more radiation from escaping Japan’s crippled nuclear plant face a hellish scenario — with every attempt to get it under control seemingly creating life-threatening problems. Unfortunately they are going to have to get used to it.
A final resolution of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power station will likely take decades and experts say there could be many further setbacks and frightening moments to come. The cost in terms of money or the health of the workers is almost impossible to assess at this stage.
Even though officials at plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) have said the four most damaged reactors at the six-reactor plant, located about 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo, will have to be scrapped, that can’t happen for years because many of the fuel rods are still in a very dangerous state.
For now, workers must keep pumping water into the reactor vessel and spent fuel pools to prevent overheating and a further meltdown while they try to rebuild the cooling system.
There are no easy choices, though.
“They are trapped in a situation where they have to feed and bleed the water in the reactor,” Arnie Gundersen, a 29-year veteran of the nuclear industry who worked on reactors similar to those at Daiichi and who is now chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates Inc of Burlington, Vermont.
Until the cooling systems are working normally workers have to allow the steam to escape to stop the pressure from getting dangerously high, even though that steam is radioactive. But as the steam comes out they have to pour more water in.
Some radioactive water is also escaping from the reactors and storage pools, possibly because of damage from the earthquake or explosions in the early stages of the crisis. It is getting into unexpected places inside and outside the plant, making it unsafe for workers to navigate the buildings to make needed repairs.
“There’s definitely a conflict now between trying to keep the reactors cool and managing the contaminated waste water being generated by the operation,” said Ed Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S.-based nuclear watchdog group.
On Monday, TEPCO said it cut back the amount of water being injected into the Unit 2 reactor by half, a move which it probably made to reduce the threat from contaminated water. The result, though, was rising temperatures in the reactor.
“They need to continue to pump water into the reactor to keep the fuel cool, but some of that water is escaping and the contamination in the building is growing ... making it harder for the workers to get in there,” Richard Meserve, former Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and current President of the Carnegie Institution, told Reuters.
“They need to be able to cool the fuel for periods longer than months,” he said.
To reestablish a cooling system, TEPCO may use robots or have to employ so-called “jumpers”.
Jumpers are people who rush into a highly radioactive area, do one job, and then jump out within minutes. Some in the industry even refer to them as “gamma sponges” or “glow boys” because they can absorb a year’s worth of radiation in those few minutes.
Keeping the contaminated water in the reactor is vital to stop radioactive steam from poisoning surrounding communities.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, suggested on Wednesday that Japan widen the evacuation zone from the current 20 kilometers after radiation exceeded the criterion for evacuation in the village of Iitate, 40 kilometers from the Daiichi plant.
Workers are also struggling to deal with highly radioactive water in at least three large trenches that run from the basement of the turbine buildings toward the ocean.
TEPCO is pumping the water out of the turbine basements and into the condensers - equipment normally used to turn steam back into water - but those condensers are also filling up.
Indeed, if TEPCO cannot find other ways to collect, store, and treat the contaminated water it may be forced to pump it out to sea.
No one wants the company to pump contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. Radioactive iodine is already more than 3,000 times the legal limit in the sea near the plant.
But all of the nuclear experts acknowledge the sea would at least dilute the radiation that is currently concentrated in the water around the plant.
“The radioactive water in the turbine hall considerably hampers any intervention,” said French nuclear watchdog ASN Chairman Andre-Claude Lacoste at a parliamentary hearing earlier Wednesday.
Lacoste said other options to deal with the contaminated water could include finding a new storage solution or to “throw it into the sea.”
The experts are encouraged by signs that TEPCO’s efforts are preventing further damage to nuclear fuel and that electric power has been restored to some areas at the site.
Nearly three weeks after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, however, there are still no easy ways to deal with the high levels of radiation that are hampering progress.
At Three Mile Island, the worst nuclear power accident in the United States, workers were able to stabilize the reactor, which suffered a partial meltdown, in four days. No one was injured in the 1979 crisis and there was no radiation release above the legal limit.
At Chernobyl in the Ukraine, the scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986, it took weeks to “stabilize” what remained of the plant and months to build a concrete and steel sarcophagus to try to protect the environment from further releases of radiation. But even today, the situation there is far from stable.
No one is yet calling for the drastic step of abandoning the Fukushima site without trying to regain control. To do so, would likely mean Japan had accepted significant radiation releases from the plant for many years.
For now, workers are “doing the best they can under the circumstances,” said Lyman of UCS. “But conditions are becoming so challenging that there may not be any easy way out. More hard choices may have to be made.”
Tearing down the damaged nuclear reactors may take decades, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency (NISA).
The ongoing nuclear crisis will continue to take its toll on the nation’s economy, said Jesper Koll, director of equity research at JPMorgan Securities in Tokyo.
“The worst-case scenario is that this drags on not one month or two months or six months, but for two years, or indefinitely,” Koll said.
Reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York, Eileen O'Grady in Houston and Shinichi Saoshiro and Yoko Nishikawa in Tokyo. Editing by Martin Howell