Built by the central government at a cost of 35 billion yen, or some $320 million, the ice wall is intended to seal off the reactor buildings within a vast, rectangular-shaped barrier of man-made permafrost. If it becomes successfully operational as soon as this autumn, the frozen soil will act as a dam to block new groundwater from entering the buildings. It will also help stop leaks of radioactive water into the nearby Pacific Ocean, which have decreased significantly since the calamity but may be continuing.
...............................However, the ice wall has also been widely criticized as an expensive and overly complex solution that may not even work. Such concerns re-emerged this month after the plant’s operator announced that a section that was switched on more than four months ago had yet to fully freeze. Some also warn that the wall, which is electrically powered, may prove as vulnerable to natural disasters as the plant itself, which lost the ability to cool its reactors after the 45-foot tsunami caused a blackout there.The reactor buildings are vulnerable to an influx of groundwater because of how the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, built the plant in the 1960s, by cutting away a hillside to place it closer to the sea, so the plant could pump in water more easily. That also put the buildings in contact with a deep layer of permeable rock filled with water, mostly rain and melted snow from the nearby Abukuma Mountains, that flows to the Pacific.
The ice wall is a high-technology bid to break that cycle by installing what might be the world’s largest freezer. Pipes almost 100 feet long have been sunk into the ground at roughly three-foot intervals, and filled with a brine solution supercooled to minus 30 degrees Celsius, or minus 22 Fahrenheit. Each pipe is supposed to freeze a column of soil about a foot and a half in radius, large enough to reach the ice column created by its neighboring pipes and form a seamless barrier.Engineers with the wall’s builder, the construction giant Kajima Corp., estimate that it will take about two months for the soil around a pipe to fully freeze. Solidifying the entire wall, which consists of 1,568 such underground pipes, will require 30 large refrigeration units and consume enough electricity to light more than 13,000 Japanese homes for a year.
.............................The technique of using frozen barriers to block groundwater has been used to build tunnels and mines around the world, but not on this scale. And certainly not on the site of a major nuclear disaster.Since the start, the project has attracted its share of skeptics. Some say buried obstacles at the plant, including tunnels that linked the reactor buildings to other structures, will leave holes in the ice wall, making it more like a sieve. Others question why such an exotic solution is necessary when a traditional steel or concrete wall might perform better.
Supporters and skeptics alike will soon learn if that gambit will succeed. After two years of work, Kajima finished installing the pipes and refrigerator units to create the ice wall in February. At the end of March, it switched on part of the ice wall for the first time — roughly half a mile that runs between the reactor buildings and the Pacific. Most of the other, uphill side of the wall was activated in mid-June.
Fingers crossed. Stay tuned.Kajima is freezing the wall in stages under orders from the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Japan’s nuclear watchdog. The authority is concerned that cutting off the groundwater too suddenly might lead to a reversal of flows, causing the radioactive water accumulated inside the reactor buildings to start pouring out into the surrounding soil, possibly reaching the Pacific. It has told Kajima to leave a half-dozen “gateways” in the uphill side that will not be closed until much of the contaminated water is drained from the buildings.This month, Tepco told the nuclear agency that the seaside segment of the ice wall had frozen about 99 percent solid. It says a few spots have failed to solidify because they contain buried rubble or sand left from the plant’s construction a half-century ago, which now allow groundwater to flow through so quickly that it will not freeze.Tatsuhiro Yamagishi, a spokesman for Tepco, said the company was trying to plug these holes in the ice wall with quick-drying cement. “We have started to see some progress in temperature decrease,” he said.Even if the cement helps make the ice wall watertight, skeptics question how long it can last. They point out that such frozen barriers are usually temporary against groundwater at construction sites. They say the brine solution used to chill the pipes is highly corrosive, which could make them break or leak. It is also unclear whether the system could break down under the stresses of operating in a high-radiation environment where another earthquake could lead to another power loss.