Following the March 11, 2011 tsunami in the north-eastern coast of Japan and the ensuing nuclear discharge from the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, contamination of the Pacific Ocean has once again come to haunt us.
On December 5, 2011, The Guardian released an article that noted large quantities of highly radioactive water had leaked through a crack in the Fukushima power plant. Operators at Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) said as much as 45 tons of contaminated water had found its way back into the ocean via a gutter that connected the plant to the ocean only 600 meters away. According to the same article, high levels of strontium-90, a beta-emitting radioactive substance that is known to cause bone cancer, were detected in the contaminated waters.
This incident resulted in the biggest discharge of radioactive material into the marine environment in history, according to IRSN, a French organization that specializes in nuclear security.
Two years after the disaster, the levels of radiation in the air are quite low. As can be seen from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s website, which monitors levels of air radioactivity in real-time, radiation in Fukushima’s Iwaki prefecture ranges from a low of 0.05 to a high 0.5 microsieverts, while in Tokyo the radiation currently averages 0.046 microsieverts.
However, a recent announcement by TEPCO calls for a new discharge of radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean.
On February 25, The Japan Times wrote that TEPCO plans to dump the water it was storing to cool the three reactors that experienced core meltdowns in 2011 back into the groundwater. On average, 400 tons of water are accumulated every day, and the storage capacity is rapidly reaching the limit.
TEPCO said it will only berid itself of the contaminated fluid upon approval of the local government and after reducing the contamination to legally permissible levels. It will perform the hygienization from a new facility that can remove 60 different types of radioactive substances, except for radioactive tritum.
In order to lower the levels of tritum, The Japan Times writes, “Tepco will consider diluting the processed water.” One netizen commented, “So, forgive me if I've misunderstood: they are going to dilute the contaminated water before putting it in the ocean. And what magic substance will they use to dilute this water? Perhaps water? Before putting it into the sea water? Genius. Whatever they're being paid, double it.”
The greater problem is that the damage has already been done. In a 2011 YouTube video, Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates says that the nuclear core was already in contact with water during the meltdown. The contaminated liquid was not leaking down into the earth, it was leaking out of the sides of the unit, going into every building on site. Thousands of tons of water containing radioactive cesium and strontium (which linger for 300 years), nuclear fuel as well as uranium and plutonium (which have half-lives on tens of thousands of years) seeped into other buildings as well as back into the ocean. An article on The Huffington Post points out that already in 2012, bluefin tuna caught off the coast of California was showing signs of higher than usual radioactive absorption.
At the end of the video, Mr. Gundersen remarks,
We’re far from out of the woods, it will be thirty years before we capture all that nuclear fuel that’s underneath that reactor vessel, and until then it will be surrounded with water that’s leaking into the groundwater.
The consequences are fatal and the effects may already be showing.
The manager of the Fukushima plant, Masao Yoshida, who stayed at the damaged reactor soon after the tsunami to inject seawater into it despite orders by TEPCO officials to abandon the measure, was hospitalized on doctor’s advice due to an “unspecified illness.” The Guardian writes that TEPCO “refused to disclose the nature of Yoshida's illness, but said it was not related to his exposure to radiation.” Yet similar unspecified illnesses are emerging.
According to Mainichi News, on February 25 this year, TEPCO released a statement confirming that at around 9:20 am in the town of Hirono, as employees of the Fukushima nuclear power plant worked on connecting one of the pipes at Unit 3, a 50-year-old employee began coiling in pain and squeezing his head between his hands. He was transported to the nearby J-Village Clinic under cardiopulmonary arrest. The doctor attempted reviving the patient, and was successful in restoring regular cardiopulmonary function but failed to restore the patient’s consciousness. He was then transported to a hospital in Iwaki city where he remains in critical condition.
Despite these tragedies, there is talk about reactivating the currently dormant nuclear power reactors across Japan. Asahi News reported today that ten of the country’s nuclear power companies have come up with a new list of standards that must be met if they are to reignite the nuclear reactors. Among them are prevention measures for severe incidents, earthquakes and tsunamis.