Perhaps the most bizarre malfunction in recent months occurred when a rat got into a switchbox and caused a short circuit. This immediately caused the makeshift cooling system for all four spent fuel pools to fail. For almost 30 hours, temperatures rose in these pools, which hold over 8,800 spent fuel rods that TEPCO hopes eventually to be able to store safely. Charred remains were all that was left of the rat.
Every day, TEPCO pumps 400 tons of contaminated cooling water and groundwater out of the radioactive wreckage of Fukushima. This water is too heavily contaminated with cesium, strontium and tritium to be emptied into the ocean. Instead, TEPCO stores the liquid in numerous tanks, the largest of which are 12 meters (40 feet) across and 11 meters high, hastily riveted together rather than welded.
Satellite images show how these behemoths have proliferated at the Fukushima site, with a few dozen of them in mid-2011, then several hundred by mid-2012. Currently, there are over 1,000 such tanks, with plans for over 2,000 of them by 2015. TEPCO is veritably drowning in contaminated water.
Contaminated Water Seeping Out
When one of these makeshift containers recently sprang a leak, it apparently took weeks before the company's two-person foot-patrol passed by and noticed it, by which time 300 tons of highly contaminated water had seeped out of the tank. This event ranks as a level three "serious incident" on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). In comparison, the catastrophe at Chernobyl and the 2011 Fukushima triple meltdown are both classified at the maximum level, seven.
There's little question that more of these tanks will develop leaks, with a number of them approaching their expiration dates and only some of the tanks outfitted with sensors to provide early warning of leakage. "These are the wrong containers in the wrong place, made of the wrong material and built in the wrong way," declares nuclear expert Mycle Schneider, one of the lead authors of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.
Malfunctions, bungling and cluelessness seem to be ongoing themes at Fukushima. Sometimes it's a radioactive cloud of steam rising from the ruined reactors; another time it's a leak plugged with nothing more than a bit of tape. Then there is the radioactive water -- it's difficult to gauge just how much -- that has already entered the groundwater and flowed into the ocean, something TEPCO until recently insistently denied. TEPCO president Hirose has now also apologized for the radiation that has affected fish off the coast near Fukushima.
"The day-to-day catastrophes are so serious that TEPCO never gets a chance to turn its attention to its actual plan," says Michael Maqua at the Society for Plant and Reactor Safety (GRS), in Cologne, Germany. He too is appalled by TEPCO's handling of the situation. "If this were a school and I were in charge of giving them a grade, they would be in danger of failing," he says.
Now, the Japanese government is providing funding for a number of more creative measures meant to turn things around at Fukushima. One plan involves a steel barrier erected between the plant and the ocean to stop radioactive water from flowing into the sea.
'We Can't Assume it will Work'