Will nuclear water be a threat?
As Barack Obama put pressure on his unwilling international partners to join what could be another Iraq in the making, bulletins from another theatre warn Pacific Ocean neighbours like us that the ominous menace from the Fukushima atomic plant is getting much worse.
What’s happened so far may have already passed the stage beyond any known remedy.
One of makeshift storage tanks holding contaminated water at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant leaked 300 tons (more than 70,000 gallons) of highly radioactive water over a few weeks into the ocean we share – and continues to do so.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company has now admitted that radioactive water from its underground storage tanks and groundwater has leaked into the ocean and that the company misled government agencies about exposures suffered by cleanup workers.
In the past, top level responses to such admissions have been infrequent and worthless.
The latest bulletin prompted Japanese Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to go to Fukushima in an attempt at damage control.
His response was typical of those in the past: ‘‘I strongly feel that the government should get fully involved,’’ he told the press.
So do millions of other Japanese. And New Zealanders may feel the same very soon if we find ourselves in the path of drifting radioactive water.
The Japanese Government denied any responsibility more than two years ago and has falsified data and safety checks since.
For more than two years the Japanese government left the Tokyo Electric Power Company in charge of the cleanup, while knowing the company’s long history of phony figures and promises.
Minister Motegi recommends that the company – which has had hundreds of billions of yen in government aid since the 2011 earthquake – should document its inspections better and use welded water tanks instead of weak, bolted tanks.
One weaker tank has the latest leak. It holds approximately 1000 tons of water and has leaked 10 tons of water every day. Of 1000 or so storage tanks on site, approximately 350 are bolted, with the seams inadequately sealed by plastic packing materials.
The company fills the tanks every two and a half days to keep up with volume of water cooling Fukushima’s crippled reactors and fuel rods.
It doesn’t yet have functioning filters to remove radioactive chemicals from the water. Large volumes of cooling water are needed every day because the closed loop used to cool the boiled water reactors during normal operations was destroyed by the March 2011 quake, tsunami and subsequent explosions.
The French daily Le Monde reports that puddles near the leaking tank yield an exposure of more than 100 millisieverts per hour when Japanese law says workers should not be exposed to more than 100mSv over a five-year period.
One hundred per hour for 10 straight hours brings on radiation sickness, including nausea and lower white blood cell count.
National Geographic reported the leaking water has high levels of strontium-90 and cesium-137.
In July, levels of these elements in wells inside the plant increased 15-fold. The power company can’t explain that increase and hasn’t found the leak.
Strontium-90 leaking into our ocean will accumulate in the bones of fish, and in the bones of people who eat contaminated seafood.
The Japanese nuclear energy watchdog has raised the incident level from one to three on the international scale that measures the severity of atomic accidents.
This acknowledges the greatest crisis since the reactors melted down after the tsunami in 2011.
Some nuclear experts fear the problem is much worse than either the power company or the Japanese Government are willing to admit.
‘‘It is much worse than we have been led to believe, much worse,’’ said Mycle Schneider, who is lead author for the World Nuclear Industry status reports.
The head of Japan’s nuclear regulation authority, Shunichi Tanaka, appeared to give credence to Schneider’s concerns, saying that he feared further leaks.
‘‘We should assume that what has happened once could happen again, and prepare for more. We are in a situation where there is no time to waste,’’ he told reporters.
Dr Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist, has examined waters around Fukushima says: ‘‘It’s not over yet by a long shot. Chernobyl was in many ways a one week fireexplosive event, nothing with the potential of this right on the ocean.
‘‘We’ve said since 2011 that the reactor site is still leaking, whether that’s the buildings and the ground water or these new tank releases. There’s no way to really contain all of this radioactive water on site.
‘‘Once it gets into the ground water, like a river flowing to the sea, you can’t really stop a ground water flow. You can pump out water but how many tanks can you keep putting on site?’’
Some radioactive elements like caesium contained in the water can be filtered by the earth. Others are managing to get through and this worries watching experts.
‘‘Our biggest concern right now is if some of the other isotopes such as strontium 90, which tend to be more mobile, get through these sediments in the ground water,’’ Dr Buesseler says. ‘‘ They are entering the ocean at levels that then will accumulate in seafood and will cause new health concerns.’’
There are also worries about the spent nuclear fuel rods cooled and stored in water pools on the site. Mr Schneider says these contain far more radioactive caesium than was emitted during the explosion at Chernobyl.
‘‘There’s absolutely no guarantee that there isn’t a crack in the walls of the spent fuel pools. If salt water gets in, the steel bars would be corroded. It would basically explode the walls, and you cannot see that, you can’t get close enough to the pools,’’ he says.
Mr Schneider is calling for an international taskforce for Fukushima. ‘‘ The Japanese have a problem asking for help. It’s a big mistake – they badly need it.’’
For our sake too. In the mailbag:
Reading of the interrogation by police of an innocent couple in the police’s fruitless attempt to pin the Crewe murders on someone gave me the shivers. Police asked the couple when they became Christian, as though this was significant – could they have been feeling guilty?
It reminded me of why I have such misgivings about the GCSB Bill. When I’ve discussed it with others, they shrug and say, ‘oh I’ve never done anything I’m ashamed of – they could never pin anything on me’. But paranoid authorities can twist innocent actions to make them sound suspicious, I argue.
The pointed questioning by the police to the couple of ‘‘when did you become Christian?’’ illustrates exac tly what I was trying to explain. Since when was it suspicious to become a Christian in this country? – Name provided