Groundwater Contamination Is the Latest Bad News from Fukushima

Situation at plant continues to make life difficult for the pro-nuclear

2 min read
Groundwater Contamination Is the Latest Bad News from Fukushima

As one who believes that nuclear power has a vital role to play in guaranteeing our future energy supplies and in lowering the risk of catastrophic climate change, I am chagrined to report that Fukushima is still providing plenty of ammunition to anti-nuclear forces, two years after the worse-than-imagined cascading disasters that befell the reactor complex in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The New York Times reported on April 30 that groundwater is infiltrating the ravaged reactor complex at a rate of 75 gallons per minute (almost 300 liters/m), straining the operators' ability to collect the contaminated water and prevent it for escaping into the Pacific Ocean.

On top of that, there is serious concern that the accumulating water could swamp the improvised systems that cool the damaged cores, and cause another major accident.

"It feels like we are being chased, but we are doing our best to stay a step in front," a Tepco general manager and spokesperson told the Times.

Already, tanks built to accommodate the strontium-laden groundwater have the capacity of 112 Olympic-size pools (photo). And yet Tepco is planning to remove a small forest near the plant to make room for more tanks. Originally, Tepco thought it would be able to dump wastewater from the plant into the ocean, after filtering out most of the strontium and other radioactive materials. But public outcry over the amount of tritium remaining in the water has led to that idea being scotched.

Could a new generation of small, modular reactors, built underground, give new life to nuclear construction in the advanced industrial countries? Two designs are looking especially promising, as Matthew Wald of the Times reported separately last week. But, as one caustic critic told Wald, the nice thing about paper designs is that they only carry the risk of paper cuts; defects often become apparent only when designs are further along and construction begins.

Photo: Kyodo/AP Images

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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