Japan wants to build a mile-long, 100-foot deep Ice Wall around the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactors to stop hundreds of gallons of radioactive water from leaking into the Pacific Ocean each day. What could go wrong?
Japanese government and electric power officials are desperate. They have been unable to end the catastrophe that began two and a half years ago when an earthquake led to the melt down of three of the Fukushima plant's six reactors. Officials have a big problem: they have to pump huge amounts of water onto the super-hot molten cores every day to prevent further meltdowns. But this creates a second problem: hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive water.
"It's leaking like a sieve," Union of Concerned Scientist expert Ed Lyman told NBC News, "Ground water is flushing radioactive contaminants into the ocean and into the ground water."
Every day for the past 900 days, reports NBC News, nearly 72,000 gallons of polluted water has flown into the Pacific Ocean. "Right now, we have an emergency,"said Shinji Kinjo, head of a Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) taskforce.
After denying for months that there was a problem, filling dozens of leaky pools with the water and letting most of it just flow covertly into the ocean, officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) have now come up with a last-ditch plan. They want to surround the entire facility with a frozen wall that would freeze the soil and create a mile-long barrier, stopping the water from leaving the reactor site.
If this reminds you of The Wall from Game of Thrones that protects the Seven Kingdoms from wildings and White Walkers that live on the other side, you're not far off.
"There is no precedent in the world to create a water-shielding wall with frozen soil on such a large scale," said Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, says the scale may be unprecedented but that this should be technically feasible. "Building cryogenic barriers sounds like the specialty of an obscure supervillain," he writes, "but it's a well-established technique in civil engineering, used regularly for tunnel boring and mining."
Others point out that even if you could build the wall, eventually the water behind it would build up and breech the wall, kind of like the wildings and White Walkers.
"If you build a wall, of course the water is going to accumulate there. And there is no other way for the water to go but up or sideways and eventually lead to the ocean," Masashi Goto, a retired Toshiba Corp nuclear engineer who worked on several Tepco plants, told The Guardian newspaper.
All of this comes at a bad time for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the most pro-nuclear leader Japan has had in many years. He wants to restart many of the 48 reactors Japan shut down after the Fukushima disaster.
Before Abe opens up new reactors, maybe he should first explain how he will bring an end to the environmental disaster this one site has caused, says nuclear power expert Harvey Wasserman. "The site is still unpredictably radioactive. It remains unclear what has happened to the melted cores of the three exploded reactors," he writes in The Progressive. "The world's worst atomic catastrophe is very far from over."
And winter is coming.