How engineers freeze soil to create structurally sound solid walls of earth

In Japan, engineers are attempting to contain radioactive contamination from the Fukushima power plant by freezing the ground around it into "ice walls" that will remain frozen for years. At Nova, Jessica Morrison writes about this weird technique, which has been around for over half a century and is more commonly used as part of massive construction projects with large underground components, including Boston's Big Dig.

More on the Fukushima water leaks

The New York Times has a story that ties together several reports of contaminated, radioactive water leaking into the ground and the nearby harbor at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. From the sounds of things, this water has not yet heavily contaminated the open sea. That's the good news. The bad news is that everybody pretty much agrees that TEPCO has no idea what to do when it comes to actually stopping the leaks, and no clue how long they could continue.

TEPCO admits Fukushima is leaking into the ocean

Experts have long suspected that the Fukushima nuclear power plant site is leaking contaminated water into the nearby ocean. Today, TEPCO, the Japanese energy company that owns the site, admitted this is, in fact, the case.

Source of increasing contamination at Fukushima Nuclear Plant unknown


Via VOA: "A leakage detective unit (C) and its detection punch unit on an underground water storage tank are seen at TEPCO's tsunami-crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant in Fukushima, in this undated photograph released by TEPCO on April 6, 2013."

Snip from a report by Voice of America's Steve Herman in Tokyo:

"Fresh revelations about radiation contamination from the operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant and a government regulator are prompting new concerns in Japan. What is expected to be a decades-long battle to halt radiation leaks and to clean up contaminated soil and water at the Fukushima-1 nuclear plant is back in the public eye following the release of new information this week."

TEPCO, the plant's operator, says there's a steady increase in the levels of radioactive cesium in the groundwater, and in levels of strontium and tritium offshore.

Safecast, crowdsourced radiation monitoring project, logs 10 million data points

The crowdsourced radiation monitoring project Safecast, which was launched in the weeks after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, has reached a big milestone: they have collected and published over 10,000,000 individual data points.

Nuclear contaminated water leaking from storage tanks at Fukushima site

Over the last couple of days, Japanese electrical company TEPCO has announced that they found leaks in three of the seven underground tanks used to store contaminated water at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. They've also admitted that the tanks aren't reliable. And here's where we get to the fun part: Despite that fact, there aren't many other options. The water is stuff that's been used to cool down fuel rods that melted during the April 2011 disaster. You have to put water on the fuel rods, or they could overheat again. But once you're done with that water, it's not particularly safe, either, so you have to contain it somehow. And until other options can be built these tanks are the only place to put it. The third, most recent, leak was found when TEPCO tried to move water from the known-to-be-leaky tanks to another they thought was in good shape. This is just a mess.

Another look at Fukushima's legacy

Recently, I linked you to a report on the World Health Organization's estimates of the long-term risk of cancer and cancer-related deaths among people who lived nearest to the Fukushima nuclear plant when it went into meltdown and the people who worked to get the plant under control and into a cold shutdown. The good news was that those risks seem to be lower than the general public might have guessed, partly because the Japanese government did a good job of quickly getting people away from the area and not allowing potentially contaminated milk and meat to be consumed. The bad news: That one aspect isn't the whole story on Fukushima's legacy or the government's competency. Although the plant is in cold shutdown today, it still needs to be fully decommissioned and the site and surrounding countryside are in desperate need of cleanup and decontamination. That task, unfortunately, is likely to be far more difficult than anybody thought, with initial estimates of a 40-year cleanup now described as "a pipe dream". One key problem: The government cut funding to research that could have produced the kind of robots needed for this work, because it assumed that nobody would ever need them.

Japan: record high radiation levels found in Fukushima fish, more than a year after nuclear accident

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in Japan said Tuesday its monitoring efforts have recorded record high radiation levels in local seafood: 25,800 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium in fish sampled within a 20-kilometer range of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The photo shows fish caught Aug. 1, 2012 within 20 kilometers of the crippled nuclear power plant. The findings indicate that radioactive contamination remains at unsafe levels in the area's food supply more than a year after the nuclear crisis.

From Kyodo News:

The level of cesium found in greenling is 258 times that deemed safe for consumption by the Japanese government, suggesting that radioactive contamination remains serious more than a year after the nuclear crisis.

Fishing in the sea off Fukushima Prefecture is voluntarily restricted except for trial fishing of certain octopuses.

CNN has more.

Japan launches criminal probe into Fukushima nuclear crisis

Finally: Prosecutors in Japan have launched a criminal investigation into the 2011 nuclear plant accident, after more than 1,300 residents filed a complaint against TEPCO executives. Bloomberg reports that the prosecutor for Fukushima City yesterday accepted the complaint, and will start a probe to determine whether professional negligence played a role in the country's worst-ever nuclear plant accident.

First of Japan's 50 reactors restarts since nuclear crisis; Japan's energy policy still in turmoil

Photo: Oi Nuclear Power Plant, via Wikipedia.

The No. 3 reactor at the Ohi (or Ōi) nuclear plant in Japan went back on the grid Thursday morning, according to a statement from its operator, the Kansai Electric Power Company. The nuclear reactor in western Japan became the first in the country to restart since last year's tsunami and earthquake caused a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant, and led to intense debate over the future of energy in Japan.

Also today in Japan, a parliamentary inquiry concluded that the nuclear accident at Fukushima "was a preventable disaster rooted in government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture." Hiroko Tabuchi at the New York Times has more.

Radiation is like an angry wife

A public info campaign in Japan compared radiation to a nagging wife. Apologies have been made. Reuters' Miki Kayaoka:

The Japanese Atomic Energy Agency devoted a page on its website to an effort to "make the hard words used in the nuclear power industry" more easy to understand, particularly for women. The page, which included a cartoon of an angry, fist-waving wife and her cowering husband, compared the wife's yell to radiation. It continued the metaphor by saying that the women's increasing agitation could be compared to "radioactivity", while claiming the wife herself was comparable to "radioactive material".

Must-listen radio: "Nuclear Power After Fukushima," documentary from BURN: An Energy Journal


Veteran radio journalist and master storyteller Alex Chadwick (who's also a personal friend—he's taught me so much about journalism over the years) hosts a must-listen radio documentary premiering this weekend on public radio stations throughout the US.

BURN: An Energy Journal is a four-hour, four-part broadcast and digital documentary series exploring "the most pressing energy issues of our times."

Part One of the series, titled "Particles: Nuclear Power After Fukushima," coincides with March 11, the first anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. I've listened in entirety, and followed along as the BURN team researched and produced over the past few months, and I can tell you this is truly powerful work. The show also includes PBS Newshour reporter Miles O'Brien, reporting from inside the Fukushima exclusion zone on his recent trip there.

Carve out some time and listen to it on-air, or listen online at this link.

Snip from description:

Included in the riveting premiere episode is an exclusive, first-time-ever interview with an American who was on-site at the Daiichi nuclear plant when the earthquake and tsunami struck. Carl Pillitteri, a maintenance supervisor and one of 40 Americans in Fukushima on that fateful day, describes his terrifying ordeal as he desperately attempted to lead his men to safety through the enormous, shuddering turbine buildings in total darkness.

Below, a video excerpt from Alex's interview with Pillitteri.

More about the radio series follows.

Read the rest

Fukushima and mental health

Yesterday, I got to host an eye-opening Q&A with Dan Edge, a PBS FRONTLINE producer who just finished a documentary about what happened at Fukushima during the first few days of the nuclear crisis there.

During that discussion, we touched a bit on the psychological impact all of this—the earthquake, the tsunami, the nuclear meltdowns—has had on the Japanese people. From studies of what's happened to the people who lived near Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, we know that the fear and stress associated with these kinds of disasters can have complex and long-ranging health effects.

Today, Paul Voosen, a journalist with Greenwire, emailed me a story he wrote last year, during the first month of the Fukushima crisis, that delves into some of the science behind how disasters (and especially nuclear disasters) affect the human psyche. If you've already read it, it's worth reading again.

Certainly, lasting scars of emotional distress -- which, at its worst, can manifest itself as serious depression or post-traumatic stress, among other symptoms -- are what researchers found in young mothers and others directly affected by past nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and seven years later at the much more serious Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine.

"What's most striking," Bromet said, "both about Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, which are obviously completely different events with different environmental consequences, is that the emotional consequences just never end."

The Fukushima crisis is, of course, an incredibly difficult situation for Japan's authorities and residents. Caution is more than justifiable when it comes to radiation, and the fear and stress that could stem from radiation risk warnings would be difficult to prioritize over immediate health concerns, said Johan Havenaar, a Dutch psychiatrist who has worked with Chernobyl evacuees.

"It is an understandably frightening situation for [the Japanese]," he said, "even if the risk is small and the measure predominantly precautionary. ... It would be unfair to suggest that the psychological effects -- i.e. their fears -- are unjustified."

What authorities should do, and often fail to do, is treat mental and physical health problems with equal respect, understanding that the two go hand in hand, Bromet said. They must respect the persistent fears that will form about radiation exposure in Japan, no matter how low the exposure and how this can take a permanent toll on people's lives, she said.

You can read the rest of this article at The New York Times website.

If you want to know more about this, there are several other links I'd recommend:
Charles Q. Choi wrote a great piece during his tour of Chernobyl last year about the health effects of that disaster, and why it's actually easier to spot the mental health impacts than the effects of radiation exposure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a primer that explains how disasters affect the mental health of different groups of people, and how the impacts vary a lot based on how close you were to the tragedy.
Chernobyl's Legacy is a document produced by a study group made up of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and others. It summarizes a lot of the research showing both the mental health impact of that disaster, and how authorities have failed to respond to it.
• Another good paper, if you can find a full, free copy of it: Psychological and Perceived Health Effects of the Chernobyl Disaster: A 20-year Review.

Join a live Q&A about the first few days of the Fukushima nuclear crisis

Last night, PBS FRONTLINE aired a new documentary about what happened at the Fukushima nuclear power plant during the crucial first days of that crisis. Using amateur video shot during the earthquake and tsunami, interviews with power plant workers who were on the scene, and some astounding footage taken inside the power plant itself, the documentary is extremely powerful. It feels weird to say this, given the effect the meltdowns have had on Japan's energy situation and the lives of the people who lived and worked near the plant ... but it seems as though Fukushima could have been a lot worse. The documentary shows us the valiant risks taken by firemen and plant workers. It also shows us the moments where, in the midst of the Japanese government and utility company TEPCO doing a lot of things very wrong, individuals stepped up to make decisions that saved lives. Without those things, this would have been a very different (and much darker) story.

In about ten minutes, I'm going to be moderating a live Q&A with Dan Edge, the producer of Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown. I'll be asking him some questions about the story, and the process of filming a documentary like this. There will also be opportunities for you to ask Edge some questions, as well. (And I already know y'all are good at coming up with interview questions.)

You can follow along, or join in on the discussion, using the chat box embedded in this post. Hope to see you there!

Haunting photos from Fukushima, one year later: "Invisible You," by Satoru Niwa

Japanese photographer Satoru Niwa, whose work I blogged in a previous Boing Boing post, has a new series from Fukushima marking the one-year anniversary of the March 11 disaster: Invisible You. Again, beautiful, evocative work. Above: a shot from the town of Namie, which is some 40 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. View the full gallery here (warning: Flash).