Stopping Fukushima Leaks with a Giant Ice Wall

fukushima_icewallFor years, scientists and environmentalists have worried about the long-term fallout of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear accident. And after a month of radioactive water leaking from the plant, the Japanese government has announced the construction of a giant, $470 million ice wall to stop it from filtering into the surrounding environment and the sea. This announcement was made shortly after another leak was discovered over the August long weekend.

This came only two weeks after Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) revealed that some 300 tons of radioactive water had disappeared from a steel tank at the site. Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority then announced at a press conference the following Monday that a small leak had sprung from a connecting pipe between some of the emergency storage tanks constructed in the wake of the tsunami.

fukushima_leakTEPCO added that more radiation had been discovered near other storage tanks, pointing to the possibility of further leaks. Hence the decision to create a freeze wall, which would attempt to keep the leaks from getting into the groundwater and wreaking havoc all across the Pacific Ocean. According to the Associate Press:

The ice wall would freeze the ground to a depth of up to 30 meters (100 feet) through a system of pipes carrying a coolant as cold as minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit). That would block contaminated water from escaping from the facility’s immediate surroundings, as well as keep underground water from entering the reactor and turbine buildings, where much of the radioactive water has collected.

The project, which TEPCO and the government proposed in May, is being tested for feasibility by Japanese construction giant Kajima Corp. and is set for completion by March 2015.

Might sound a bit hokey, but this isn’t the first time that officials have tried using a giant frozen wall as a stopgap measure, or even the first time one was used to contain nuclear contaminants. In 1996, Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory used an ice wall to keep radioactive waste from leaking into a creek.

fukushima_reactorIn England and Wales, freeze walls have been used in mining operations for almost half century, and are being used to isolate arsenic trioxide leftover from an abandoned gold-mining operation in Canada’s Northwest Territories. And Moretrench, a company that worked on Oak Ridge, is creating a freeze wall pilot for containing contamination from the Albertan tar sands.

This latter project has served as a model for the current Fukushima freeze wall project. Earlier this year, TEPCO engineers also visited Hanford, Washington, to learn about nuclear containment techniques. There, engineers are still at work decommissioning the original nuclear reactors used to create plutonium for the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, and the government has spent $16 billion to clean up the leaks that have since resulted.

fukushima_accidentHowever, according to the Associated Press, the decision to put a freeze wall in place also appears to be motivated by the imminent deadline for the Olympic Committee to choose a city for the 2020 games. Since Japan is looking to host, any ongoing environmental issues could sully their chances. However, as far as long term containment goes, this option may prove effective at averting a long-term ecological disaster.

What’s more, if the cooling system to keep the barrier of insulated ice intact fails, any leaks or cracks will freeze to the wall, stopping the possibility of the further contamination. In addition, as demonstrated by the Oak Ridge Wall, an ice wall has incredible longevity. Years after it was decommissioned and remediated, the government was still hauling solid ice out of the ground.

So it would not be unreasonable to expect that it will hold long after the reactor leak is contained and worries about contamination are no longer an issue.


Nukemap 3D: Bringing Nuclear War to your Home!

nukemap3Ever wonder what it would look like if a thermonuclear device hit your hometown? Yeah, me neither! But let’s pretend for a moment that this is something you’ve actually considered… sicko! There’s an online browser-based program for that! It’s called Nukemap3D, and uses a Google Earth plug in to produce a set of graphics that show the effects of a nuclear weapon on your city of choice.

All you have to do is pick your target, select your favorite thermonuclear device, and you can see an animated mushroom cloud rising over ground zero. The creator was Dr. Alex Wellerstein, an Associate Historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland, who specializes in the history of nuclear weapons and nuclear secrecy.

nukemap3-1Interestingly enough, Wellerstein’s inspiration for developing Nukemap 3D came from his experience of trying to teach about the history of nuclear weapons to undergraduates. As people who had completely missed the Cold War, these students naturally didn’t think about the prospect of nuclear war much, and had little to no cultural association with them.

Events like Hiroshima and the Cuban Missile Crisis were essentially ancient history to them. For him and his wife, who teaches high school, it was always a challenge to get students to relate to these issues from the past and seeing how they related to the present. Specifically, he wanted his students to address the larger issue of how one controls a dangerous technology that others find desirable.

nukemap3-2And given how inundated young people are today with technology, he believed an online browser that allowed children to visualize the effects of a nuclear attack seemed just like the thing. The concept originally grew out of his own research to determine the size of the Hiroshima bomb versus the first hydrogen bomb versus a modern nuclear weapon.

After producing a web page with the relevant info in 2012, he began receiving millions of hits and felt the need to expand on it. One of the things he felt was missing was info on additional effects of nuclear blasts, such as radioactive debris that comes down as fallout, contamination that can extend for hundreds of kilometers in all directions, and how this can spread with prevailing winds.

NuclearDetonationsIn addition to being a pedagogical tool which can help students appreciate what life was like during the Cold War, Wellerstein also hopes his site could help combat misinformation about modern nukes. All too often, people assume that small devices – like those being developed by North Korea – could only cause small-scale damage, unaware of the collateral damage and long-term effects.

Another use of the program is in helping to combat ideas of “instant apocalypse” and other misconceptions about nuclear war. As we move farther and farther away from an age in which nuclear holocaust was a distinct possibility, people find themselves turning to movies and pop culture for their information on what nuclear war looks like. In these scenarios, the end result is always apocalyptic, and by and large, this is not the case.

nuclear1In a war where nuclear confrontation is likely, civilization does not simply come to an end and mutants do not begin roaming the Earth. In reality, it will mean mass destruction within a certain area and tens of thousands of deaths. This would be followed by mass evacuations of the surrounding areas, the creation of field hospitals and refugee camps, and an ongoing state of emergency.

In short, a nuclear exchange would not means the instantaneous end of civilization as we know it. Instead, it would lead to an extended period of panic, emergency measures, the presence of NGOs, humanitarian aid workers, and lots and lots of people in uniform. And the effects would be felt long after the radiation cleared and the ruins were rebuilt, and the memory would be slow to fade.

Hiroshima, after the blast
Hiroshima, after the blast

Basically, Wellerstein created Nukemap 3D in the hope of finding a middle ground between under exaggeration and over exaggeration, seeking to combat the effects of misinformation on both fronts. In a nuclear war, no one is left unaffected; but at the same time, civilization doesn’t just come to an abrupt end. As anyone who survived the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can attest, life does go on after a nuclear attack.


The effects are felt for a very long time, and the scars run very deep. And as those who actually witnessed what a nuclear blast looks like (or lived in fear of one) grow old and pass on, people need to be educated on what it entails. And a graphic representation, one that utilizes the world’s most popular form of media, is perhaps the most effective way of doing that.

In the meantime, be sure to check out Nukemap 3D and see exactly what your hometown would look like if it were hit by a nuclear device. It’s quite… eye-opening!