Japan Nuclear Crisis: Sawdust, shredded newspaper, "diaper absorbent" fail to soak up radioactive water

0403035-thumb450x.jpgWould that this were a joke. Highly radioactive water is leaking into the sea at the badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan. Workers there have tried to stop the flow with polymeric water absorbent, the stuff used in baby diapers, that can soak up 50 times its volume in liquid. At left, a snapshot of the material (photo: Kyodo News).

They're also using sawdust and shredded newspapers. But Japan's nuclear safety agency, NISA, says so far none of this is working. And the government's top spokesperson says it will likely take several months before radiation stops leaking from the plant.

Engineers put 8 kilograms of the polymeric water absorbent together with 60 kilograms of sawdust and three bags of shredded newspaper into pipes leading to a pit connected to the No. 2 reactor building where a 20-centimeter crack has been found to be leaking radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, the agency said.

However, those materials injected at a point 23 meters away from the seaside pit have not been sucked into the water flow, leaving no impact on the rate of leakage, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for the governmental Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Nishiyama said the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. will keep monitoring the situation until Monday morning to examine the effects of the water-absorbing mission. The firm will also try to trace the route of the radioactive water leakage from the pit by draining colored water on Monday, he added.

"Absorbent yet to soak up radioactive water at Fukushima plant" (Kyodo News)


    1. None of that 50x shite, this stuff goes 400x.

      Maybe they did. Thinkgeek says it is out of stock.

  1. Looks like another “junk shot” like BP’s lame attempt to stop the Gulf oil spill.
    That one didn’t work either.
    Another idea from the best and the brightest in our fabulously wealth energy industries.
    (I see the U.S. Navy’s moving its ships out of Yokosuka, 170 miles away south of Tokyo. Maybe they know something we aren’t being told.)

  2. So, they plugged up the pipe leading to the problem.
    So much for “do no harm”, page Dr. House..

  3. Xeni, why would trying to plug the leak with sodium polyacrylate be a joke? It seems eminently sensible to me, but I’ve not kept up to date with the latest developments in super absorbent polymers. Do you know differently?

    1. To the best of my knowledge, a hydrophilic polymer is a perfectly sensible material(and, while I’m sure team science has some in the lab that are modestly more efficient per unit weight, the ones with consumer applications can be had by the ton with fairly short lead times…)

      The fact that one is reduced to injecting them into the pipes and applying optimism as mixed nucleotide soup continues flowing is where the problematic part comes up. Especially if you have to stay 20+ meters from the pit where the leak is because you don’t have the hardware to handle the pit directly.

    2. The widely-published references to the material as “diaper absorbent” are the comedic element.

      That, combined with the fact that these tactics are now being employed against a problem of massive scale and potential consequences, add up to lulz in the face of disturbing news. The idea of using absorbent polymer, late in the game, to staunch a really large and ongoing leak of radioactive water? It’s an interesting idea. The fact that this same material is used in something as innocuous, small, and ubiquitous as diapers? Poetic and/or funny.

  4. I wish they could somehow plug up the hole(s) with the islands of plastic floating in the Pacific. Like, find a way to suck it all up and in there somehow.

    “Junk shot,” “top kill” – it’s exactly like that. And the Putzmeisters are kind of like BP’s “top hat” thing-y. That failed, too….

  5. If only water had a a solid state.

    I’m not a scientists, but maybe they could try cooling the water below 0 C around the leak. It would be temporary, but then those polymers would have a chance to form in standing water.

    1. I remember reading that the soviets ended up attempting liquid nitrogen injection at one point during the Chernobyl incident, to cool the core faster than water would.

      I suspect that the problem here(aside from the usual challenges of handling cryogenic liquids, which can be tricky in bulk) is that the area is above freezing anyway, radioactive materials make their own heat, which doesn’t help, and the earthquake and tsunami induced disruptions to the surrounding areas probably mean that local atmospheric distillation capacity is nowhere near high enough to produce the liquid nitrogen or dry ice required to keep the place frozen.

      Per unit cooling, pumping water from a few hundred meters away is about as easy(in terms of energy and hardware needed) as anything possibly could be, and they still can’t keep the damaged cores within safe levels. The amount of electricity and hardware required to keep the location solidly frozen would be at least an order of magnitude greater.

      If they really need to solidify the fluids around the place, we might end up seeing much larger quantities of sodium polyacrylate show up. The stuff is used for diapers, water treatment, soil conditioning, and a bunch of other stuff, and a quick look around the intertubes shows plenty of random industrial suppliers who claim to be able to fulfill orders in the 100s of metric tons a month range…

  6. The diaper gel stuff is pretty unique in its ability to imprison water in a solid(ish) form at a low price point, it is also used as a mixed spray to protect houses from wildfires, it really works in that application.

  7. Makes perfect sense to anyone who has seen the little cartoon about Nuclear Boy and his stinky poos:

    Xeni is right — one cannot help but notice the absurdities, even while retaining a sense of the awful grimness of the situation and maintaining one’s sense of solidarity and sympathy for all those already affected and likely to be so in the days and months ahead.

  8. I have to wonder why it’s necessary to dye the water when it’s already radioactive, and hence fairly easy to detect.

    1. They are searching for sources, not attributes.

      The mere fact of radioactivity does not trace the water’s origin – like a simple coloured dye may do.

  9. This is reminiscent of the gulf oil spill, with all the various attempts at sealing that baby off, only much worse.

    1. Worse?

      Precisely how so?

      Far more died in the Gulf Oil spill, you know.

      Or is this judgement something that depends on your mood at the moment?

      1. I know people were immediately killed in the gulf, from the rig explosion, and NOT the spill. I’m thinking long range effects of radiation. Bacteria eats oil, at least. And why the sarcastic question about my mood? Sounds like you might be in one, a mood, that is. I can’t otherwise recall ever having an issue with you, or insulting you.

        1. Sorry for the snark; i had noticed that you had referred to your mood in the comments for the Huffpo vs. NYT article – although in that case your mood had not affected your judgment.

          So my bad.

          It IS a bit early yet as to asserting much in the way of an objective measure of the scope of the damage that this aspect of the continuing earthquake/tsunami disaster has and will cause to the Japanese people and the environment – never mind comparing this to other disasters.

          Indeed, I’m not sure that the scope of the environmental damage from BP rig disaster has yet been fully determined.

          1. Bygones, friend.

            Anyway, I didn’t intend to diminish the impact of the oil spill. The dispersants used are probably a lot worse than the actual oil spill. And the scary part, like with the nuclear power plant, is that the danger is invisible to the eye. And like the oil spill, the government tends to tell the public that the peril is over, no matter what is known, or unknown about risks and consequences. This way, they (oil co,s and nuclear plants) can go back to business as usual.

      2. Immediate human casualty is by no means the only unit of measuring the severity of a disaster.
        I don’t see a point arguing which will be worse, the Japanese radiation spewage or the gulf oil spill, when both cases will take generations to play out. It is already clear though that far more people are already affected in Japan.

        I’m not even aware of anyone dying from the oil spill. I thought the deaths occurred in the explosion that caused it. The world didn’t care about that.
        The world cared to have the leaks closed quickly.
        It took way too long.
        It’ll take longer in Japan.

        1. Precisely so; which is why I am uninterested in any comparisons between these situations: the Fukushima Daich’ii disaster is yet a knock-on effect from the great tsunami/earthquake, and inseparable from it.

          But I cannot help but think that the Japanese themselves have rather more interest than the world does in the effective resolution of this situation; and I sincerely hope that it goes as well as possible for them.

  10. The two most salient points today about this situation are imho those discussed by NHK:

    1. Radiation levels continue decreasing:


    2. Patching things up will take some time:


    I hope now that more international (and other) personnel are working on and around the site, we will be subjected to fewer media accounts, some of which may amount to no more than uninformed speculation, about what “may be happening” there.

    1. “I hope now that … we will be subjected to fewer media accounts…”

      It sure is nice of you to use the independent media to speak in favor of fewer media accounts.

      I guess that doesn’t seem contradictory to you, or your sense of irony is broken, or you are a paid poster.

      1. i was speaking of quality, not quantity.

        And you know it.

        Paid? I’ve posted here at Boing Boing for years now – iirc, nuclear power has never come up until recently as a topic…..nor has my thinking about it changed for the past twenty-five or thirty years. And this accident hasn’t generally changed it.

        The more fact-based reporting, the better, imho.

        OT: my keyboard is recovering from the kids’ visit….

        1. “i was speaking of quality, not quantity.

          And you know it.”

          Yeah, I can read your mind. Not.

          Maybe if you wrote more precisely…

  11. Oh and here’s some photos which good ol’ Cryptome has up showing the site in some detail:


    ..as well as a good summary of what happened from nuke power outfit AREVA, also linked via at Cryptome:


    Personally, my hope is that he people working on the problems do well.

    Usually jobs like this are a three-way trade-off between speed, price and quality.

    I hope they take as much time and money as it takes, to do these repairs just as well as they possibly can be.

  12. Why not good old portland cement? The whole plant is likely going to be inside a sarcophagus made of the stuff sooner or later.

  13. Could it be cheaper to let the water out?
    Treating millions of gallons of water costs money.
    Leaked water can’t be treated.
    Just like the Deepwater spill disperse it and don’t take responsibility.

    My wife is pregnant. This baby will be the third generation in my family human history to deal with man made radioactive material in the environment.

    No more nuclear energy, weapons, medicine.

  14. We debate whether or not the current nuclear crisis in Japan is worse than the recent oil spill crisis in the Gulf. I feel they are both horrific and equally devastating in their own ways. To me, the concern is our ability as humankind or lack of ability to deal with these disasters when they occur. We have the ability to create new technologies but don’t really have the ability to fix the problems when they go wrong. Unforseen events I understand but with our brainpower and technologies we should be able to predict and then defeat these issues much easier. I mean come on….a make shift diaper?

    1. Old sayings for new technologies:

      1. Live and learn
      2. Whatever works

      An error is a success in learning what does not work.

  15. If the radioactive water is absorbed into any solid substance, would that solid substance not remain radioactive? Is dilution into the ocean not “as safe” a solution?

  16. I’m not sure what we gain by comparing a nuclear crisis to an oil crisis.

    Oh, wait. I know exactly what we gain.

  17. Add a shit ton of corn starch and make oobleck. MMmmm radioactive oobleck, garrgggllleee.

  18. Basically, at this point, I don’t give a shit what they try next. As long as it gets fixed.

  19. But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
    In proving foresight may be vain:
    The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
    Gang aft agley,
    An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
    For promis’d joy!

  20. I had two thoughts: A, why is the dye being dropped on -monday- and not now? and B, why do they build these reactors on land for an ISLAND surrounded by lovely radiation absorbing ocean.

    Salt water/tectonics/blah blah I get that, and yet somehow an irradiated part of their decidedly small and population dense country not recovering for a century or more just seems…
    Silly, and avoidable.

    – Blaze

    1. Anon #38: your provided link does not work for me, fwiw.
      Water is very heavy: seven tons of water sounds quite a lot, but it is actually about seven cubic meters in volume, is it not?

      How many cubic meters of water in the Pacific Ocean?


      That doesn’t help much…oh here we are: 139 million cubic miles of water in the Pacific…..care to work out the total mass of it?


      Lots of dilution potential, eh?

      1. Canuck, please>/i>. Your willfulness is getting in the way of your comprehension.

        That’s an infinite amount more than ought to be there. Everyone agrees.

      2. Dilution helps, but you have to take in account biomagnification-bioaccumulation, specially when dilution starts from an area of the ocean rich in life/biomass as it is the surface. Things might sound even worst considering our place in food chains.
        I have the impression that TEPCO is trying to decommission the plant in a Three Mile Iland style, while the Chernobyl solution is inevitable at least for the spent fuel pool that seems to have exploded dispersing chunks of higly radioactive fuel all over.
        Covering everything with cement, boron and led seems to me the ultimate solution. It may be necessary to build a cofferdam and fill it as well, using all sorts of robots and teleguided systems as far as possible.

        1. “…the spent fuel pool that seems to have exploded dispersing chunks of higly (sic) radioactive fuel all over.”

          Got a source citation for that, or could you tell that that’s what happened by your own inspection of the visual materials available on the net?

          1. Thank you for correcting me. I admit that may overstated an impression. Still, as I wrote, it SEEMS to have exploded. Anyway the temperatures reached from the fuel might have made it become partially volatile. If you do not accept, reasonably, the dispersed chunks assumption I made, the problem still remains. The spent fuel is likely to have undergone massive particulate-if not chunks- dispersion in the proximity (not to far away due to high density). As far as my limited understanding of nuclear reactors the zirconium alloy holding the fuel have ignited when overheated and exposed to air. The rest is just to hard to predict since the variables are many. The chemicals/materials crashed into the pool are various.
            I’m not sure, but from the explosions videos, from the the level of destruction seen after, and from the closeups videos taken from the water injecting cranes it is reasonable to think about local dispersions of fuel. All you get to see from what they show, is just a big mess with fuel boxes covered in debris.
            Here is a video from an expert talking about the fuel closeup video.

    1. 100times the legal limit is still a very low number; way lower than what is on the reactor site. They are dumping the low risk water at a treatment plant to have room for the higher risk water. There are simply not a lot of options to start with and not a lot of time. They have to get the heavily contaminated water out of the way now to get those cooling systems up and running. The longer they go without those cooling systems the worse it gets.

  21. Not trying to be cynic or sick or anything… but I think this will save the tuna from extinction. No one will hunt in these waters for years now. Radioactive spills have a nice track record in bioconservation – remember Chernobyl, which essentially created a rather unhealthy wild nature park in the middle of Europe, and the Bikini atoll, which has the most pristine coral reef known.

  22. Wow. Except not not not funny at all.

    I know that there is a lot of criticism surrounding the situation, and everyone’s looking for a few chuckles to help clear the dark clouds, but unfortunately it’s cold comfort to all of us over here dealing with it.

  23. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XI5frPV58tY

    6 ways mushrooms can save the WORLD… the breakdown and ABSORB “radiation” (and oil btw).

    Fly Paul Staments to Japan, Asap. (thanks ever so much in advance ~ mother earth)

    The Nuclear Forest Recovery Zone Myco-remediation of the Japanese Landscape After Radioactive Fallout

    Many people have written me and asked more or less the same question: “What would you do to help heal the Japanese landscape around the failing nuclear reactors?”
    The enormity and unprecedented nature of this combined natural and human-made disaster will require a massive and completely novel approach to management and remediation. And with this comes a never before seen opportunity for collaboration, research and wisdom.
    The nuclear fallout will make continued human habitation in close proximity to the reactors untenable. The earthquake and tsunami created enormous debris fields near the nuclear reactors. Since much of this debris is wood, and many fungi useful in mycoremediation are wood decomposers and build the foundation of forest ecosystems, I have the following suggestions:

    1) Evacuate the region around the reactors.

    2) Establish a high-level, diversified remediation team including foresters, mycologists, nuclear and radiation experts, government officials, and citizens.

    3) Establish a fenced off Nuclear Forest Recovery Zone.

    4) Chip the wood debris from the destroyed buildings and trees and spread throughout areas suffering from high levels of radioactive contamination.

    5) Mulch the landscape with the chipped wood debris to a minimum depth of 12-24 inches.

    6) Plant native deciduous and conifer trees, along with hyper-accumulating mycorrhizal mushrooms, particularly Gomphidius glutinosus, Craterellus tubaeformis, and Laccaria amethystina (all native to pines). G. glutinosus has been reported to absorb – via the mycelium – and concentrate radioactive Cesium 137 more than 10,000-fold over ambient background levels. Many other mycorrhizal mushroom species also hyper-accumulate.

    7) Wait until mushrooms form and then harvest them under Radioactive HAZMAT protocols.

    8) Continuously remove the mushrooms, which have now concentrated the radioactivity, particularly Cesium 137, to an incinerator. Burning the mushroom will result in radioactive ash. This ash can be further refined and the resulting concentrates vitrified (placed into glass) or stored using other state-of-the-art storage technologies.

    Gomphidius glutinosus hyper-accumulates radioactive Cesium 137
    By sampling other mushroom-forming fungi for their selective ability to hyper-accumulate radioactivity, we can learn a great deal while helping the ecosystem recover. Not only will some mushroom species hyper-accumulate radioactive compounds, but research has also shown that some mycorrhizal fungi bind and sequester radioactive elements so they remain immobilized for extended periods of time. Surprisingly, we learned from the Chernobyl disaster that many species of melanin-producing fungi have their growth stimulated by radiation.

    The knowledge gained through this collaborative process would not only benefit the areas affected by the current crisis, but would also help with preparedness and future remediation responses.

    How long would this remediation effort take? I have no clear idea but suggest this may require decades. However, a forested national park could emerge –The Nuclear Forest Recovery Zone – and eventually benefit future generations with its many ecological and cultural attributes.

    I do not know of any other practical remedy. I do know that we have an unprecedented opportunity to work together toward solutions that make sense.

    For references, see the selected list below and please consult my latest book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley or http://www.fungi.com). Utilizing search engines of the scientific literature will also reveal more corroborative references.

    Paul Stamets

  24. They’re using SAWDUST and NEWSPAPER to PLUG A RADIOACTIVE LEAK?? Isn’t that just barely a step above spit and toiletpaper?

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