Three years ago yesterday, on March 11, 2011, the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi was hit by a tsunami that followed an earthquake less than an hour before. The tsunami waves exceeded the height of the seawall protecting the power plant by as much as thirty feet. The facility flooded, and, over three days, explosions at the reactors occurred.
The accident is categorized as a Level 7, the same category as the Chernobyl accident of 1986, though Chernobyl released much more radioactive material. Leaks at Fukushima Daiichi have been discovered since the initial accident. Cleanup and full decommissioning of all six reactors there could take several decades.
Tepco, the Tokyo Electric Power Company that runs the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, has been criticized for not releasing accurate, timely information from the get-go. Only a few weeks ago, Reuters reported that Tepco measured increased levels of strontium-90 in a groundwell near the ocean. The measurement was taken last fall but not released to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority taskforce for five months.
With water coming down from the mountains, seeping into the reactor buildings, then seeping out as groundwater that moves at about four inches every day, something needs to be done, and efforts by Tepco thus far haven’t stopped contamination downstream of the reactors. The most recent issue of National Geographic reports of the leak discovered last August, “Now an underground ice wall is being proposed to contain [the seeps of groundwater].” Ice walls have been used in mining and construction for decades, and one was put into place at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to contain radioactive groundwater.
In addition to new leaks, the world is watching for signs of the accident’s effects on human beings exposed to the immediate dangers three years ago. This spring, a group of U.S. veterans filed a class action lawsuit against Tepco. According to The Huffington Post, the USS Ronald Reagan “was as close as a mile offshore as the stricken reactors poured deadly clouds of radiation into the air and ocean beginning the day after the earthquake and tsunami.” The lawsuit alleges that Tepco did not provide enough information about the accident and the risks and that those who brought the lawsuit have suffered a variety of ailments from blindness to cancer to children with birth defects.
Roughly a week before this news, in early February of this year, Business Week and other media outlets reported that the radioactive water from Japan is expected to wash up on the West Coast of the United States this year. Many scientists suggest that the danger is minimal because the radioactivity has become so dispersed in the Pacific Ocean and that, even nearer to Japan, the danger has been minimal because of strong currents. In fact, “Under normal operations, Diablo Canyon [a nuclear power plant in California] discharges more radiation into the sea, albeit of a less dangerous isotope, than the Fukushima station, which suffered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.” In other words, this discharge happens all the time around the world, which might allay fears but should also raise concerns about whether any exposure is safe and how exposure and risk is measured.
We’ve written about these issues several times before at Lofty Ambitions, and the anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi accident is probably a good time to poke around at our other posts about radioactivity.
While trepidation in the wake of the accident three years ago initially halted the expansion of nuclear power plants, Reuters reported last month that the United Arab Emirates and Belarus have started construction on nuclear power plants in the last two years. Four more countries are expected to start construction of nuclear power plants in the next five years. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “There are currently 65 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 104 nuclear reactors in 31 states around the country.” According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, “As of January 2014, 30 countries worldwide are operating 436 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 72 new nuclear plants are under construction in 15 countries.” While nuclear is the primary power source for France, Belgium, and Slovakia, the United States has more nuclear power plants than any other country.
Closer to home for us are the Diablo Canyon Power Plant and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The former is located near four faults and has been upgraded to withstand an earthquake of 7.5 magnitude. The latter was shut down in 2012, after a steam generator leaked radioactive material into a containment tank, with a small amount released into the environment. Unexpected wear was discovered in some parts, and the reason for the wear and the leak have not been determined. Now, the units there are being decommissioned.
For our readers in the United States, check HERE to find your closest nuclear power plant on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission map.