News Feature | August 30, 2013

Japan Considers 'Ring Of Subterranean Ice' To Contain Radioactive Groundwater

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Japan is debating how to shield the environment from radioactive water leaking out of the failed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility melted down after the tsunami nearly three years ago. The utility addressing the problem has "accumulated the largest pool of radioactive water in the history of nuclear accidents," Bloomberg reported

The problem arises when the groundwater flowing to the sea through the facility is "contaminated by contact with the damaged reactors and other radioactive spots," The Wall Street Journal reported. Now that water is leaking beyond the plant.

In what experts call a novel and controversial solution, Japan is considering whether to install "a subterranean ring of ice" to contain the contaminated water, according to The Wall Street Journal

That would mean "circulating super-cool liquid through a line of pipes inserted into the ground every yard or so. The pipes freeze the soil and groundwater around them, which solidifies into a solid wall of ice that blocks all movement of water," the newspaper said. 

The proposal has spurred a lively debate. Opponents say the ice ring is risky because it could cost millions of dollars, is not a thoroughly tested approach, and amounts to an only temporary solution to the problem until steel or concrete barriers go up, the paper reported. 

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) admitted in August that it had failed to stop radioactive material from leaking into the environment, according to All Things Nuclear. It now says the leakage represents a "serious incident" as a radioactive threat. 

What does this mean for water safety?

Although the situation is bad, "it does not yet pose a major public health threat comparable to the releases of radioactivity that occurred in the weeks following the accident, which were millions of times greater," All Things Nuclear said. 

Emergency response is a major focus for the water sector, in part because contaminants can spread quickly and result in far-reaching consequences for the environment. 

In Japan, the government has taken control of the radioactive water problem after the new leakage came to light.

“We’ve allowed Tokyo Electric to deal with the contaminated water situation on its own and they’ve essentially turned it into a game of ‘Whack-a-Mole,’” Trade Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said, according to Bloomberg. “From now on, the government will move to the forefront.”