A government-backed, large-scale project to reduce the amount of contaminated water produced daily at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has become bogged down.

The project involves creating a frozen wall of soil around reactor buildings at the plant to stop the flow of groundwater into the facilities.

The Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the nuclear plant, have adopted this approach as the centerpiece of the efforts to reduce the volume of polluted water.

But the project has failed to produce the expected results.

The work to build a frozen soil wall around the No. 1 to No. 4 reactor buildings was completed in June. Nearly three months on, however, there remain unfrozen parts through which groundwater enters the facilities.

The total daily amount of groundwater, which becomes contaminated with radioactive materials within the reactor buildings, has remained unchanged at about 400 cubic meters.

At the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s meeting to assess the effectiveness of the approach, some outside experts even said the project has failed.

Still, TEPCO didn’t change its plans to proceed with the project, taking additional steps such as injecting cement into the unfrozen parts.

At a recent news conference, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko said that the work to freeze soil around the reactor buildings had been progressing. He stressed he would keep “instructing” TEPCO.

On the assumption that the envisioned frozen soil wall will be successfully constructed, TEPCO has estimated the daily production of contaminated water will fall to about 250 cubic meters in September and decline further to about 150 cubic meters in January.

If the amount fails to decrease as expected, there will be serious effects on eliminating most of the radioactive materials from contaminated water and installing tanks to store processed water. That means the entire plan for solving the problem of contaminated water will be in a precarious state.

Is the frozen wall of earth project really still viable?

To date, some 34.5 billion yen ($337 million) of taxpayer money has been poured into the project. Daily freezing costs additional money.

It is unacceptable to continue spending human and financial resources as well as time to keep the project running without a solid prospect of success.

The Agency for Natural Resources and Energy and TEPCO should determine by a certain deadline whether the project has succeeded or failed.

They should also work out an alternative plan in the event the project fails, as the NRA has repeatedly called for.

There has been no instance of building such a large frozen soil wall in Japan. But the energy agency and TEPCO dared to attempt this approach at the site of one of the biggest nuclear accidents in world history.

While the approach has the advantage of a relatively short construction period, many experts, including NRA officials, have warned from the outset about utilizing it at the Fukushima plant.

Some experts pointed out that completely freezing soil would be difficult because an enormous amount of groundwater is flowing fast around the plant.

Others said building an impermeable wall through civil engineering work would be a more reliable way to reduce the groundwater entering the buildings.

The energy agency decided to allow the frozen wall method in the face of such skepticism.

The proposed frozen soil wall is only a means to reduce the amount of contaminated water. But the energy agency and TEPCO seem to be viewing the success of this method as the goal.

What is the most effective and reliable way to prevent a second environmental pollution catastrophe by contaminated water containing large amounts of radioactive materials?

The agency and the utility should address this question with a broad perspective that is not distorted by unwarranted optimism.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 29