Tokyo Electric Power Co. will likely fall short of fulfilling its pledge to process all highly radioactive water stored at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant by the end of March.
Another key TEPCO deadline in March is also on shaky ground because of technical failures and other issues at the site.
Contaminated water has been a persistent problem since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, triggered the triple meltdown at the plant. Every day, tons of groundwater becomes highly radioactive after seeping into the basements of the reactor buildings where melted nuclear fuel remains.
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Fukushima site in September 2013, TEPCO promised to process all of the tainted water by the end of March this year to eliminate the possibility of radioactive water leaking into the surrounding sea.
On Jan. 15, 280,000 tons of radioactive water remained in storage tanks on the plant’s premises.
In spring 2013, TEPCO began running the multi-nuclide removal equipment called ALPS (advanced liquid processing system) to accelerate processing of the contaminated water. But several malfunctions in the system have prevented TEPCO from proceeding with its originally planned operations.
The company introduced additional ALPS systems last autumn to treat up to 1,960 tons of radioactive water a day. The maximum processing capability was still insufficient to complete procedures by the end of March 2015, so TEPCO later in autumn introduced equipment that only removes strontium, which accounts for a large portion of all radioactive substances in the water.
TEPCO has since been working to meet the target date by regarding strontium-free water as being “processed,” even if other radioactive substances remain.
The utility has argued that it will be able to process all of the contaminated water at the Fukushima No. 1 plant by the end of March by using the strontium-removal systems.
Under its latest plan, TEPCO will eliminate strontium from 1,800 tons of water daily with the help of an extra strontium-removal device that began operations on Jan. 10. Two additional strontium-removal systems are scheduled to be started by the end of this month to achieve that figure.
The utility intends to complete the tainted water purifying procedure as scheduled by simultaneously operating the ALPS systems at full capacity.
But even if TEPCO had started using both ALPS systems and the strontium-removal equipment to the full on Jan. 16, it would still not be easy for TEPCO to process all 280,000 tons of tainted water by the end of March, according to calculations.
In fact, the newly introduced ALPS equipment has also experienced a number of problems.
As of Jan. 18, both ALPS systems and the strontium-removal equipment had yet to start full operations.
TEPCO is under no legal obligation to keep its promise with Abe.
Although tons of radioactive water will likely remain at the site after the deadline, the water-purifying process will help to reduce radiation exposure of employees working around the storage tanks.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority in February last year ordered TEPCO to lower radiation levels derived from tanks storing contaminated water to below 1 millisievert by the end of March 2015.
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