A recent Bloomberg article documents TEPCO’s efforts to work with the US Department of Energy on ways to deal with the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Much of this cooperative work has centered around the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington state.
The site is where the plutonium for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was produced back in the 1940’s. Hanford has a long history and a legacy of exposing the public to radiation for government experiments and the widespread contamination of the region that is still a major ongoing problem.
One of the things TEPCO is now considering is concrete entombment. This would save TEPCO about 11 trillion yen (around US$112 billion) in estimated costs. The DOE has done this with some of the reactors at Hanford but none of these units melted down. The fuel was easily removed. One unit, the B reactor is even currently being used as a museum, indicating there is at least some level of relative safety to the buildings. Hanford also sits inland in a desert plateau. Fukushima is nowhere near the same situation.
None of the reports indicated if this idea would be used after melted fuel was removed from the reactors at Fukushima or if there is some sort of intention to not do so. Since there is evidence that the melted fuel may have left containment at some of the units in Fukushima, this could actually create more problems if fuel isn’t fully removed first. There also remain issues of the excessive amounts of groundwater flowing through the plant. An entombment plan could potentially make the situation worse if it allows the plant complex and reactor buildings to continue to leach contamination into the environment. Hanford also does not have to deal with the constantly moving earth as Fukushima does through frequent earthquakes.
As far as the US experience in handling a melted down reactor, the Three Mile Island unit that melted down but didn’t breach the reactor vessel still sits untouched decades later. The melted fuel was removed from the vessel and is being stored at Idaho National Lab. Many of the facilities at Hanford remain either untouched or unresolved. The tanks continue to leak into the groundwater without a working solution. Hydrogen is a constant risk to the tanks that puts the northern US at risk if one were to explode. The underground train used to shuttle radioactive fuel between the reactors and the plutonium plant sits in the tunnel with the ends concreted over. The DOE has no idea how to deal with it so has sealed it off until they come up with an idea. The vitrification facility at Hanford that has been the hope for cleaning up the leaking tanks of radioactive stew is over budget and behind the construction schedule. Problems with contractors and technical challenges prevent even a hopeful completion date from being set. The Hanford site certainly has experience they can share with TEPCO to try to help deal with the disaster at Fukushima but they certainly do not have a great deal of success.
For more understanding of the history of Hanford read our series Hanford to Fukushima
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