Two reports on Fukushima’s radiation and its environmental impact

We provide here two reports of the long-term environmental impact of the radiation from Fukushima’s tsunami-ravaged nuclear reactors. The first comes from the USA’s broadcaster PBS, dated 9th March 2016. The second comes from Greenpeace, dated 22nd July 2016.

 

Report by Ken Buesseler, PBS, 9th March 2016

With the help of my colleagues in Japan and around the world, I’ve spent the past five years piecing together the impacts that radioactive releases from Fukushima have had on the ocean, marine life, and the people who live on both sides of the Pacific. In the process of sharing our insights with scientists and the public, I’ve become frustrated with both sides of the nuclear power debate for embracing either overly alarmist or dismissive attitudes toward the problem. In addition, I’ve grown concerned over the lack of oversight for radioactive contamination in U.S. waters.

On March 11th, 2011, the devastation in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami provided a stark lesson in nature’s power. But in the days that followed, another disaster unfolded at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that continues to underscore how human activities can leave a discernible imprint on something as large as the Pacific Ocean and on people and organisms thousands of miles away.

This event is unprecedented in its total release of radioactive contamination into the ocean.

 

A volunteer feeds swans in an area destroyed by the March 11, 2011 tsunami inside the exclusion zone in Okuma, near Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photo by Toru Hanai/Reuters]

A volunteer feeds swans in an area destroyed by the March 11, 2011 tsunami inside the exclusion zone in Okuma, near Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photo by Toru Hanai/Reuters]

 

Five years later, the story from the Japanese side of the Pacific is this:

Overall, things are under control with the construction of an “ice wall” to prevent the continued releases of contaminated water into the ocean, and fishing has resumed in all regions except those within 10 kilometres of the reactors.

However, these milestones obscure the fact that the Japanese will be wrestling with the clean-up for decades and will spend trillions of yen in the process. It also minimizes the threats posed by millions of gallons of highly contaminated water on the power plant grounds and the likelihood that storms and other natural events will continue to mobilize contaminants currently trapped in soils and ocean sediments near shore.

More than 80 percent of the radioactivity from the damaged reactors ended up in the Pacific — far more than reached the ocean from Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. Of this, a small fraction is currently on the seafloor — the rest was swept up by the Kuroshio current, a western Pacific version of the Gulf Stream, and carried out to sea where it mixed with (and was diluted by) the vast volume of the North Pacific.

These materials, primarily two isotopes of caesium, only recently began to appear in the eastern Pacific: In 2015 we detected signs of radioactive contamination from Fukushima along the coast near British Columbia and California.

Although just barely discernible by our most sophisticated instruments, these signs, and the many more signs from samples we’ve collected on both sides of the Pacific, show that releases have continued, but that at current rates, it would take 5,000 years to equal the amount of caesium released in the accident’s first few months.

Despite this, the fact remains that this event is unprecedented in its total release of radioactive contamination into the ocean. Nevertheless, we often struggle to detect signals from Fukushima above the background radiation that surrounds us every day.

So what’s the middle ground?

First, it is incorrect to say that Fukushima is under control when levels of radioactivity in the ocean indicate ongoing leaks, caused by groundwater flowing through the site and, we think, enhanced after storms.

At the same time, it is also wrong to attribute to Fukushima events like recent die-offs of seal, whale, and starfish along the West Coast rather than see that they are far more complex and have been happening for far longer than we’d like to admit.

It is incorrect to say that Fukushima is under control when levels of radioactivity in the ocean indicate ongoing leaks, caused by groundwater flowing through the site and enhanced after storms.

Recently, I’ve begun to see a much more serious threat to U.S. waters. With our nearly 100 reactors, many on the coast or near inland waterways that drain to the ocean, you might expect a federal agency to be responsible for supporting research to improve our understanding of how radioactive contamination originating from one of these sites would affect our marine resources.

Instead, the response we receive from an alphabet-soup of federal agencies is that such work “is in the national interest,” but ultimately “not our job.” As a result, we have turned to crowd funding to help us build data along the West Coast to address immediate public concerns and to keep a watchful eye out to sea.

That is no longer sufficient. As the EPA runs RadNet, which monitors radioactivity in the air we breathe, we need an OceanNet to do the same for our nation’s waters. We also need to do a better job of educating the public about radioactivity to lessen the impact of both inflammatory and dismissive rhetoric.

Fortunately, accidents on the scale of Fukushima are rare, but there is a great deal more we can and should do to prepare should something similar happen here. We can’t simply cast our lot on good fortune. Instead, we need to do everything we can to fill the knowledge gaps that have the potential to do great harm in the wake of disaster.

Source: PBS, 9th March 2016. For further details, see
www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/fukushima-radiation-continues-to-leak-into-the-pacific-ocean

 

Report By Greenpeace, 22nd July 2016

Radioactive contamination in the seabed off the Fukushima coast is hundreds of times above pre-2011 levels, while contamination in local rivers is up to 200 times higher than ocean sediment, according to results from Greenpeace Japan survey work released Thursday.

“The extremely high levels of radioactivity we found along the river systems highlights the enormity and longevity of both the environmental contamination and the public health risks resulting from the Fukushima disaster,” Ai Kashiwagi, energy campaigner at Greenpeace Japan, said.

 

Greenpeace sediment sampling in Abukuma river, Miyagi prefecture, February 2016. The Abukuma has a 5,172km2 catchment15 which is largely in Fukushima prefecture, before entering the Pacific ocean in Miyagi prefecture. Greenpeace / Raquel Monton

Greenpeace sediment sampling in Abukuma river, Miyagi prefecture, February 2016. The Abukuma has a 5,172km2 catchment15 which is largely in Fukushima prefecture, before entering the Pacific ocean in Miyagi prefecture. Greenpeace / Raquel Monton

 

“These river samples were taken in areas where the Abe government is stating it is safe for people to live. But the results show there is no return to normal after this nuclear catastrophe,” said Kashiwagi.

Riverbank sediment samples taken along the Niida River in Minami Soma, measured as high as 29,800 Bq/kg for radiocaesium (Cs-134 and 137). The Niida samples were taken where there are no restrictions on people living, as were other river samples. At the estuary of the Abukuma River in Miyagi prefecture, which lies more than 90km north of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, levels measured in sediment samples were as high as 6,500 Bq/kg.

 

Greenpeace radiation specialist Jacob Namminga on board research vessel off the coast of Fukushima Daiichi, removing marine sediment sample collected by Remotely Operated Vehicle, March 2016. Greenpeace / Christian Aslund

Greenpeace radiation specialist Jacob Namminga on board research vessel off the coast of Fukushima Daiichi, removing marine sediment sample collected by Remotely Operated Vehicle, March 2016. Greenpeace / Christian Aslund

 

The lifting of evacuation orders in March 2017 for areas that remain highly contaminated is a looming human rights crisis and cannot be permitted to stand. The vast expanses of contaminated forests and freshwater systems will remain a perennial source of radioactivity for the foreseeable future, as these ecosystems cannot simply be decontaminated.

Caesium-137 has a half life of 30 years and will continue to pose a risk to the environment and human health for hundreds of years.

Caesium-137 contamination in seabed samples near the Fukushima plant was measured at up to 120 Bq/kg — compared to levels pre-2011 of 0.3 Bq/kg. Further, the levels of contamination found 60km south of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were comparable with those found within 4km of the plant.

Numerous marine science investigations, have concluded that these higher levels are one explanation for some marine species still showing higher caesium levels than the background levels in seawater.

 

River systems along Fukushima and neighbouring prefecture coastline discharging radioactivity into Pacific Ocean.

River systems along Fukushima and neighbouring prefecture coastline discharging radioactivity into Pacific Ocean.

 

“The radiation levels in the sediment off the coast of Fukushima are low compared to land contamination, which is what we expected and consistent with other research,” Kendra Ulrich, senior global energy campaigner at Greenpeace Japan, said. “The sheer size of the Pacific Ocean combined with powerful complex currents means the largest single release of radioactivity into the marine environment has led to the widespread dispersal of contamination.”

Most of the radioactivity in Fukushima Daiichi reactor units 1-3 core fuel in March 2011 remains at the site.

“The scientific community must receive all necessary support to continue their research into the impacts of this disaster,” Ulrich said.

“In addition to the ongoing contamination from forests and rivers, the vast amount of radioactivity onsite at the destroyed nuclear plant remains one of the greatest nuclear threats to Fukushima coastal communities and the Pacific Ocean. The hundreds of thousands of tonnes of highly contaminated water, the apparent failure of the ice wall to reduce groundwater contamination and the unprecedented challenge of three molten reactor cores all add up to a nuclear crisis that is far from over.”

A radiation survey team onboard the research vessel Asakaze, supported by the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior, conducted underwater survey work along the Fukushima coastline from February 21st to March 11th this year, as well collecting samples in river systems. The samples were measured at an independent laboratory in Tokyo.

Source: Greenpeace/Ecowatch.com, 22nd July 2016. For further details , see www.ecowatch.com/radiation-fukushima-rivers-200-times-higher-than-pacific-ocean-seabed-1937971722.html


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