Like a slow-motion train wreck, the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster is still causing damage long after the world’s media has left the news story behind.
On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan triggered a tsunami with waves that reached as high as 144 feet. These waves swamped the Fukushima nuclear power-plant complex, causing a resulting shutdown leading to the world’s worst nuclear incident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
The accident has been rated a level 7, on a scale of 1 to 7, on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
As a result of this disaster, the complex’s coolant pumps failed to operate and the power plant reactors overheated, leading to a release of radionuclides directly into the ocean exceeding that from any previous accident.
Water is currently being pumped into the reactors in an attempt to keep them cool and prevent further explosions, but handling the water is becoming a problem.
The contaminated cooling water is being released directly into the ocean and is making its way into the ecosphere. Water from the storage tanks has also seeped into the groundwater and from there, into the ocean. Efforts to use a various barriers to prevent contamination have not completely stopped the leakage.
In another effort to stem the radioactive water from reaching the sea, Japan has pledged to spend $470 million to construct an “ice wall” around the reactors to contain the water. Under the Japanese plan, a wall of frozen earth will be constructed around the reactors to prevent the water being used to cool the fuel rods from comingling with the sea.
“The world is closely watching whether we can dismantle the (Fukushima) plant, including the issue of contaminated water,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “The government is determined to work hard to resolve the issue.”
This is quite a change from previous statements the prime minister has made. In a speech Sept. 7 in front of the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, Abe stated categorically, “Let me assure you the situation (the contaminated groundwater problem) is under control.”
Six days later, Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the plant, disputed the prime minister’s claim at a meeting in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture.
“We regard the current situation as not being under control,” said Kazuhiko Yamashita, a senior official at Tepco.
Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympic Games following Abe’s speech.
“The quantities of water they are dealing with are absolutely gigantic,” said Mycle Schneider, an independent consultant who has previously advised the French and German governments and has consulted widely for a variety of organizations and countries on nuclear issues. “What is worse is the water leakage everywhere else – not just from the tanks. It is leaking out from the basements, it is leaking out from the cracks all over the place. Nobody can measure that.”
It is clear that the repercussions from this disaster are far from over.
There has been a debate over the size of the Pacific Ocean and the quantity of the contamination. Some say that even though the U.S. is directly across the ocean from the accident, the volume of the water will easily disperse the contaminants.
Others say the particular isotopes from the reactor do not disperse easily and don’t sink to the bottom. They remain in the water column, from top to bottom.
In this last scenario, sea life has a much greater chance of contacting and carrying the suspended radiation. They either breathe it or eat it in others. Scientists are watching carefully for any signs of contamination in the ocean’s biosphere.
According to Maxim Shingarkin, deputy chairman of Russia’s State Duma Committee for Natural Resources, “Currents in the world ocean are so structured that the areas of seafood capture near the U.S. northwest coast are more likely to contain radioactive nuclides than even the Sea of Okhotsk, which is much closer to Japan. These products are the main danger for mankind because they can find their way to people’s tables on a massive scale.”
This is an issue of significant importance to the United States since, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. imported almost 45 million pounds of fish from Japan in 2012.
There is evidence the radioactive water emanating from the plants starting two years ago has made its way into the ocean currents and will soon start to affect the ecosystems in North America as early as the spring of 2014.
Some say it is already here.
Reports are coming in that the North American food supply is already being affected by Fukushima.
Bluefin tuna caught off the San Diego coast is showing evidence of radioactive contamination. This is the first time that a migrating fish has been shown to carry radioactivity 3,000 miles from Fukushima to the U.S. Pacific coast. It is a nutrition source that accounts for approximately 20,000 tons of the world’s food supply each year.
According to the report published by the National Academy of Sciences, “We report unequivocal evidence that Pacific Bluefin tuna, Thunnus orientalis, transported Fukushima-derived radionuclides across the entire North Pacific Ocean.”
“We were frankly kind of startled,” said Nicholas Fisher, one of the researchers reporting the findings online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“That’s a big ocean. To swim across it and still retain these radionuclides is pretty amazing,” Fisher said.
To rule out the possibility the radiation found in the tuna was carried by ocean currents or dropped into the ocean through rainfall from the atmosphere, the team also analyzed Yellowfin tuna, found in the eastern Pacific, and Bluefin that migrated to Southern California before the nuclear crisis. They found no trace of cesium-134 and only background levels of cesium-137 left over from nuclear weapons testing in the 1960s.
The report went on to say: “The levels of radioactive cesium were 10 times higher than the amount measured in tuna off the California coast in previous years. But even so, that’s still far below safe-to-eat limits set by the U.S. and Japanese governments.”
The results were surprising enough to conduct further tests this coming summer with a larger sampling of migratory fish. The tuna that were the subject of the previous study were exposed to radiation from Fukushima for approximately one month. The upcoming study will be looking at fish that have been swimming in radioactive waters for a longer period.
They will also be expanding their study to cover other migratory species including sea turtles, sharks and seabirds.
There have been many other reports of fish and sea-creature populations dying in the Pacific. Also, there have been many discoveries of cesium–137 in high concentrations in seafood caught in the Pacific and sold in North America. There have also been many reports of unexplained deaths among wildlife:
- Vast amounts of sea stars are “melting” off the west coast of North America
- Killer whales are dying off the coast of British Columbia
- There is an epidemic of sea lion deaths due to starvation along the California coastline. The question is: why are they starving? Has the food chain been disrupted?
- Polar bears, seals and walruses along the Alaska coastline are suffering from fur loss and open sores
- Along the Pacific coast of Canada and the Alaska coastline, the population of sockeye salmon is at a historic low
- Something is causing fish all along the west coast of Canada to bleed from their gills, bellies and eyeballs
- Experts have found very high levels of cesium–137 in plankton living in the waters of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the west coast, affecting the food chain in a process called “biomagnification”
As of now, there has been no direct correlation between these events and Fukushima, but the timing of the events and some contributing factors are giving scientists pause and are giving substance for calls for more studies.
While the evidence may circumstantial at this point, it is enough for countries to take action.
Due to radiation fears, Fukushima Prefecture fishermen have had to dump most of their catch. Two years into the nuclear disaster, South Korea still bans Japanese fish and seafood imports from eight Japanese prefectures. The ban covers an area of Japan that exported 5,000 metric tons of fishery products, or about 13 percent of the 40,000 total tons imported last year to South Korea.
In eastern Japanese ports outside of the prefecture, hundreds of pounds of fresh fish are sent to Onjuku, a small town a few hours away from Tokyo.
Once they arrive, samples of the fish are checked for radiation in a move to restore the world’s confidence in Japan’s food supply in the wake of Fukushima.
Japan’s Marine Ecology Research Institute, or MERI, operates out of Onjuku and is charged with the testing. MERI was established in the mid 1970s to certify that fish supplies remain safe despite wastewater discharge from the nuclear plants. It is now working overtime to assure the world that Japan’s fish are safe to eat.
Even with these assurances, many buyers are not sure just how much to trust the quasi-government laboratories. The U.S. has recently banned agricultural and fishery imports from 14 prefectures in Japan, up from the eight that South Korea banned.
Leung Ka-sing, an associate professor at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University’s department of applied biology and chemical technology, has stated his country should expand its ban on fish products from the current conditional ban on eight prefectures to all of Japan. This is in response to public fears of contamination from ongoing leaks at the Fukushima nuclear plant. He said the ban would act as a preventive measure and address fears over radiation.
The events in the Pacific Rim do not seem to be isolated incidents. They may not be provocative. The oceans are large, and they contain a massive population of species that get sick from time to time. But they are in numbers that warrant an in-depth discovery and full disclosure.
Radiation is found everywhere in the world, so some radiation in food can be expected. How much is a safe level seems to vary over time. Immediately following the World War II atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, American military construction crews were sent into the cities to clear irradiated rubble, telling the crews that the work was safe.
Only years later did they find out it wasn’t safe, and that serious, permanent injury resulted from working in the area.
Gordon McDonald, Ph.D, executive director of Research for the Koinonia Institute, contributed to this report.