Here's the crazy thing about the plan to build an almost mile long, 90-foot deep, subterranean ice wall around the Fukushima nuclear plant: It's not really very crazy at all. Building cryogenic barriers sounds like the specialty of an obscure supervillain, but it's a well-established technique in civil engineering, used regularly for tunnel boring and mining. Ground freezing was even tested as a way of containing radioactive waste in the 1990s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and performed admirably.
Joe Sopko, the civil engineering firm Moretrench's director of ground freezing, has spoken with several consultants about the details of the project, and he's convinced it's certainly possible. "This is not a complicated freeze job. It really isn't," he told me. "However, the installation, because of the radiation, is."
Ed Yarmak of Arctic Foundations, which installed the system at Oak Ridge, agreed. "It's a large system, but I don't think it's out there, where people can't do it and can't do it efficiently."
Here's the problem this technology could solve. The Fukushima nuclear plant, which was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011, is located on a slope. This fact of topology means that groundwater running down from the Abukuma plateau to the east pass right into the site.
Japanese officials estimate that 400 tons of water reach the plant every day and mix with water used to cool the reactors. That's roughly 96,000 gallons of radioactive water. About 300 tons (or 72,000 gallons) of contaminated water flow out to sea daily, according to Japan's National Resources and Energy Agency.