What is happening with Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster?

Google satellite image of increasing number of water storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi facility

Nearly two and a half years after the tsunami and earthquake that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, the situation is far from stable. In late August, the emergency status was increased from a 1 to a 3 on the International Nuclear Emergency Scale, which places it as the highest level “incident” before it could be classified as an accident. Tokyo Power and Electric, or Tepco, has been struggling with how to manage the massive volumes of radioactive water ever since the accident was triggered in March 2011 and problems have increased exponentially since then (see photo to left).

The heavily damaged reactors continue to be cooled with water that is pumped in and then pumped out. Japan’s Ministry of Industry estimates that 300 tons of water have leaked each day since the accident. Last week, the highest radioactivity readings since the accident were found in the sea. Then a massive leak was discovered of water contaminated with radiation at concentrations millions of times over “safe” limits. To make matters worse, it appears that nearly half of the storage tanks onsite could be leaking from plastic seals. Learn more about the leaks from a BBC Q&A article here.

Current estimates of the clean up now stand at $50 billion, and dealing with the nuclear fuel and the reactor cores is expected to be an extremely dangerous, volatile, and complicated ordeal. For starters, it is unclear where the damaged (“melted”) reactor fuel is located. Making matters worse is the sheer amount of spent fuel onsite in the tightly packed pools. Literally one wrong move could spark a criticality.

And the discussions about and suggestions on how to contain all of the leaking radioactive water are staggering. It may seem unbelievable, but the Japanese government announced that it intends to build an “ice wall” to contain the leaks and prevent further contamination. A schematic of the site as referenced in the New York Times provides an informative visual of the attempts to control the contamination. In Part 2 of PBS Newshour’s coverage of the plan, Dr. Arjun Makhijani with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, discusses some of the problems with the proposal along with the dangers posed to workers onsite, such as this excerpt:

“Well, more recently, there have been reports that the radiation levels near another tank are 1,800 millisieverts per hour. This is an extremely high level of radiation. A few hours basically constitutes a lethal dose. So now we’re talking about radioactive contamination in these tanks, the liquid stored in these tanks, that are very highly radioactive. And so these leaks are extremely problematic for the workers and for management.”

Health impacts from the accident are growing more evident and concerning, with increasing numbers of children diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Children under 18 have been receiving continual screenings since the accident. RT news reports that, so far, 18 have been diagnosed and another 25 children are displaying symptoms that could prove to be cancer. Unfortunately, nearly 90% of people receiving high doses are not eligible for these screenings.

Nearly 10,000 Fukushima workers are eligible for compensation, should they develop leukemia. The Asahi Shimbun reports that most workers are unaware of these benefits, or of eligibility for compensation for other types of cancer. The report continues with allegations that Tepco is not doing enough to protect or educate workers. Recent reports that 12 workers were found to have been contaminated with radioactive dust in two separate incidents this month would seem to support these allegations, especially since the source of the contamination is suspected to be mist tents set up to cool employees for the summer.

The West Coast of the United States can expect higher and higher amounts of radiation over the next few years, according to new analysis from the International Pacific Research Center. Click this link for an intense graphic of projected radiation flow from Japan to the U.S. over the next 6 years. Additionally, much has been made of a recent National Academy of Sciences report that discussed contamination found in bluefin tuna that migrate between Japan and the Eastern Pacific. Despite every fish having measurable amounts of radioactive cesium, the media reported that the health impacts were minimal. Check out this Common Dreams article for an overview of the debate.

The nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex is not just Japan’s problem — it has been and continues to be a long-term global problem. It serves as a terrible reminder, just as the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union, of how devastating a nuclear power plant accident can be — not just when it happens but for decades and decades afterwards.

Additional Resources:

SACE’s high risk energy choices program director, Sara Barczak, contributed to this blog post.

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