Hedging on Stability: Reality goes Speculative
08.10.2013, 1:42 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“There is no precedent in the world to create a water-shielding wall with frozen soil on such a large scale.”
– Japanese government spokesman and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Reality is going speculative in Japan with the recent decision to build a frozen wall of soil in attempts to contain radioactive groundwater currently spilling into the Pacific Ocean. We are in awe of this endeavor. The Japanese government has recently decided to intervene in the ongoing crisis and join Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) to create a  “vast network of coolant pipes” that will create a 1.4km frozen soil barrier capable of stopping  contaminated water from entering the Pacific, as it has been since at least June. The unfortunate truths are that the design will take at least 2 years to implement and there is no precedent for such a project.  Tepco has already attempted a soil hardening project at the site, but this did not achieve the desired results. Ongoing failures aren’t surprising given that 1000 tons of fresh groundwater flow from the mountains towards the ocean each day and Fukushima Daiichi exists in the space between.  Apparently, 400 tons of water end up inside the reactor buildings everyday, while 300 more tons flow directly into the sea after passing through contaminated areas. The Japan Times says another 300 uncontaminated tons flow daily into the ocean. Trenches have been dug to try to contain the radioactive water, but so far all attempts to date have not fully succeeded.

We hope for the best for this latest plan.  But it is remarkable to witness how the overall project is predicated on stability of earth and electricity to support the project.  And such stability is far from given in this tsunami ravaged and earthquake prone location. But there isn’t much of a choice, and there isn’t any simple way to end this ongoing event that has sustained a crisis pitch for more than two years.

It also seems important to remember that the plant at Fukushima was originally designed to be an energy generating infrastructure. It’s as if a total reverse of “power” has taken place. The crippled infrastructures now generate ramifying risk effects for humans.  These will be economic (the earth-freezing project is projected to cost $400 million USD), cultural, social and environmental.  Humans will be left to grapple with these effects for foreseeable futures.

We’re not sure how long the ice wall is intended to last.  So far no reports have explain the life expectancy of the barrier. But we can’t help wonder how the containment design, reliant on stable earth and constant electricity supplies, can outlast the simple laws of gravity that will send water continuously from the mountains to the ocean for decades to come.


As we follow this story on The New York Times, it seems to us that we’ve all just crossed a threshold, into a situation for which humans are now required to become massively creative and innovative at speeds, scales, and complexities that are without precedent-—not, unfortunately, in the service of life-enhancing innovations and designs—but in the service of damage control and risk mitigation. Human lives and energies (as well as economies) will have to be redirected for untold futures in order to support this and other climate/environment altering endeavors:

“Indeed, the proposed ice wall is seen here as a symbol of both the daunting technological challenges posed by the cleanup, and the need — critics say desperation — for creative solutions as the plant, which already stores enough contaminated water to fill 160 Olympic-size swimming pools, is faced with having to store hundreds of more tons every day.

The plan calls for freezing the soil around the reactor buildings to keep out groundwater before it can become contaminated. The wall would run nearly a mile in length and reach almost 100 feet into the ground. Officials said no wall of ice on such a scale has ever been attempted before, and was thus beyond the capacities of Tepco alone to pull off.

But even as Tepco — and now the government — place a bet on the ambitious plans for the wall, experts have begun to raise concerns, including that the wall will need to be consistently cooled using electricity at a plant vulnerable to power failures. The original disaster was brought on by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out electricity.” – Marin Fackler and Hiroko Tabuchi for the New York Times

Some have suggested that in and as the Anthropocene, humans now have assumed a position at the center of networks of power and force, as we transform the planet we inhabit “all the way down” to its geologic profile.  We’d like to suggest that rather than being at the center (or top) of the distribution of contemporary global effects, we humans are situated on and as the ground of those effects.  We are sitting, along with the rest of biological life, pretty much in the crosshairs as receivers of effects we ourselves have been generating in recent centuries. We are setting up conditions that all present and future humans will have to mitigate.  Just how we will creatively meet and navigate unprecedented (in human history) instabilities in planetary dynamics and material instabilities that we have, in part, generated, is unclear from here.   Inconveniently, our best attempts at coming up with creative solutions capable of establishing some stability seem destined to be performed in the midst of increasingly unstable environments.

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