IAEA experts depart Unit 4 of TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on 17 April 2013 as part of a mission to review Japan's plans to decommission the facility. Photo Credit: Greg Webb / IAEA
On March 11, 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan, leaving nearly 19,000 people dead or missing. Coastal communities were turned into wastelands. Equipment at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant sustained damage from a 40-foot-high wave that crashed over the plant’s defensive sea wall. The result: three nuclear meltdowns and the release of untold radioactive material (in short, one of the biggest nuclear accidents in history).
The event triggered core meltdowns in nuclear reactors 1 through 3. Portions of the core in each reactor are believed to have melted through their pressure vessels and pooled at the bottom of their containment vessels. The actual condition of the melted fuel remains unknown because the radiation is too high to monitor. Though several radioactive materials are involved, the primary radioactive materials being monitored are two isotopes of cesium. These isotopes have now been detected along the coast of British Columbia and California.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) maintains that the radiation is confined to the site and not a risk to the public. Critics, including the U.S. military in 2011, have long questioned whether TEPCO and officials have been providing accurate information on the severity of the radiation. The fact remains, six years later, Fukushima radiation continues to seep into the Pacific Ocean. Few news sources rarely cover this anymore. According to TEPCO, conditions are “under control” with the construction of an ice wall to limit the continued release of contaminated water into the ocean. Fishing has resumed in all regions except those within 10 kilometers of the reactors. The cleanup, estimated to take 30 to 40 years, will come at an astounding cost. TEPCO estimates that the price of technology involved, as well as compensation to residents and businesses, will reach tens of trillions of yen (over $100 billion).
On February 2, 2017, TEPCO reported that the maximum estimated radiation level was 530 sieverts (Sv) per hour based on images from a camera. (Remarkably, this is significantly higher than the maximum rates of 73 Sv/hour recorded in 2011.) On February 10, 2017, using a robot in the same area, TEPCO reported 650 Sv/hr. To put this in context, a human exposed to a dose of just 1 Sv could become infertile, lose hair, or develop cataracts; a dose of 4 Sv would result in death in 50% of those exposed. At the most recently recorded dosage rates, cameras and robots fail after two hours of exposure, limiting their effectiveness in removing the fuel.
A small robot is the first to show the underwater ruins of one of the world's worst nuclear plant disasters.
The bottom line: it is clearly inaccurate to say that Fukushima is “under control” when levels of radioactivity in the ocean indicate ongoing leaks, caused by groundwater flowing through the site, particularly after storms. As the EPA runs RadNet, which monitors radioactivity in the air we breathe, there is a need for an OceanNet to do the same for U.S. coastal waters (and for others to monitor global waters). We also need to do a better job of educating the public about radioactivity - to ameliorate the impact of both inflammatory and dismissive rhetoric.