“It’s a lot like triage, where you must deal with certain things ahead of other things,” said Jeff Griffin, the associate director for environmental stewardship at Savannah River National Laboratory, which is helping Tokyo Electric Power Co. map out a recovery plan for its tsunami-damaged reactor complex.
Access is gradually being restored to the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, but some areas remain so radioactive they can be accessed only by robots, which will be used in future efforts to dismantle and remove contaminated structures.
“That capability exists now,” Griffin said. “When you can avoid exposing humans to situations like those, you do.”
Griffin, who has 25 years of experience in radioactive waste management and remediation, is a co-leader of a joint technical team that includes other scientists from SRS and another U.S. Energy Department site – Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Both labs have experience in high-level radioactive waste disposal, groundwater cleanup, grouting encapsulation, soil removal and similar fields.
“All those things are very much the same kinds of challenges that TEPCO faces at the Fukushima site,” Griffin said. “The difference in Japan is that it all happened overnight, in one place, and it forces you into a different mindset.”
Each time Griffin and his team visit the site of the March 2011 triple meltdown, the scarred landscape appears a little less surreal.
“It’s starting to get the appearance of looking more normal,” he said. “There are still piles of debris everywhere, but they are deliberate piles – metal, concrete, trees.”
Inside the “exclusion zone,” an area surrounding the plant guarded by police checkpoints, there is still an eerie silence.
“When you get inside, it looks from a distance like everyday houses and shops and stores and gas stations,” Griffin said. “But when you drive past them, you realize there is no one there, and there hasn’t been anyone there in a year-and-a-half.”
The cleanup work employs about 3,000 to 3,500 workers – mostly contractors hired by TEPCO – each day.
Griffin and his team are preparing a report that will include recommendations and priorities for cleanup and future monitoring.
Working inside Fukushima requires meticulous safety precautions.
“We do have to dress out in the anti-contamination clothes, and always have some kind of respirator setup and a couple pairs of gloves,” Griffin said. “We’ve also mapped out where the radiation areas are and where the dose is highest, and of course we avoid those areas.”
Some of the immediate challenges have focused on maintaining the flow of cooling water to the melted reactors and fuel, while finding a way to remove and treat contaminated groundwater that began seeping into the reactor areas after the quake.