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Typhoon Season Raises Concerns About Fukushima Plant


Okay, the Atlantic hurricane season has been quiet so far, but in the Pacific two typhoons are moving toward Japan, raising concerns once again about the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which sits right on the coast. Its reactors, of course, melted down after an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Joining us to discuss what the effects could be is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hi, Geoff.


INSKEEP: Okay. So what's the threat from a typhoon if it were to get anywhere near the nuclear power plant?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the thing about a typhoon is that even if it doesn't pass directly over the plant, which would be bad, it brings with it a lot of rain. And if there's one thing Fukushima doesn't need, it's more water.

INSKEEP: Why not?

BRUMFIEL: So since the accident started back in 2011, the radioactive cores have had to have water poured into them to keep them cool. This water has seeped out into the ground and it's contaminated the surrounding ground water. That groundwater is pumped out by the Tokyo electric power company, which runs the plant, and put into holding tanks.

These tanks have been building up around the plant. Now, these tanks, in turn, sit on concrete pads that protect them from leaking out, but when you get a lot of rain, what happens is these concrete areas around the tanks start to fill up. There's a little bit of radioactivity around there, so the rainwater becomes contaminated.

Then you have to deal with the rainwater. When a typhoon passed near the site last week, some of that water leaked out and contaminated the ground. Some of it, workers were able to pump out, but then they had to put it somewhere so it went into more tanks.

INSKEEP: So the bottom line here is water flows. The more water that they have, the harder it is to contain the contamination from spreading around. So what do they want to do about it?

BRUMFIEL: Well, at the moment there's not a whole lot they can do. I mean ideally what they'd like to do is they have some filtration systems set up. They can remove some of the contamination but not all of it, and then they would take this water and they'd discharge it into the Pacific Ocean. I mean when I say ideally, I mean from the perspective of the Tokyo Electric Power Company.

They're the guys running this plant and running the cleanup operations.

INSKEEP: Other people might have other opinions?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. The public is already pretty fed up with radioactivity leaking out of Fukushima. Immediately after the accident there were a number of planned discharges. Then for a long time the Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO, they said that they thought everything was fine, but actually there was radioactivity slowly seeping out of the ground and they admitted that over the summer.

People are upset about it, in particular fishermen are very upset. Fukushima has a huge prefecture. It has long coasts. Lots of fishermen depended on that area for their livelihood, and as long as the Tokyo Electric Power Company continues to discharge water, no one's going to buy that fish.

INSKEEP: Geoff, can I just mention, it's been two and a half years since this accident. Of course these things take a long time, but, you know, it rains. It's going to continue to rain. Is there any solution in sight to this problem going on and on?

BRUMFIEL: There's a long term plan that TEPCO has outlined for trying to at least stop radioactivity from getting out, and it involves something that sounds a little bit crazy, an underground ice wall that will surround the plant.


BRUMFIEL: So basically the idea is that they are going to put in coolant systems, pipes, that will go underground. They'll freeze the earth around the broken reactors. This will theoretically prevent ground water from flowing into the plant and it's going to prevent radioactivity from flowing out of the plant.

INSKEEP: Theoretically.

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean these ice walls have been built before, but no one's ever tried anything on this scale.

INSKEEP: Geoff, thanks very much.

BRUMFIEL: Thanks for your time.

INSKEEP: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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