Tomorrow, March 11th 2015, is a somber anniversary for the people of Japan: four years since the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, sparking a tsunami, claiming tens of thousands of lives, and beginning the worst nuclear disaster in a generation: the triple reactor core meltdowns and destroyed containment buildings at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
And, four years later, the nuclear crisis continues to unfold: both the environmental contamination and the ongoing human suffering caused by the disaster.
A team of IAEA experts check out water storage tanks TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on 27 November 2013. The expert team is assessing Japanese efforts to decommission the stricken nuclear power plant. Photo Credit: Greg Webb / IAEA
Even Japan’s Prime Minister Abe – an unabashed nuclear supporter who has been pushing for the restart of Japan’s nuclear fleet – has taken a step back from his position of 2013 that the radioactive water crisis was “under control.”
In January 2015, he admitted that, “There [are] a mountain of issues, including contaminated water, decommissioning, compensation and contamination… When I think of the victims still living in difficult evacuation conditions, I don’t think we can use the word ‘settled’, to describe the Fukushima plant”.
One of the plagues of the Fukushima site has been – and continues to be – a crisis of that most fundamental of elements, the very foundation for life on this planet: water.
Water, contaminated with some of the most dangerous and long-lived man-made toxins ever created: radioactive elements like cesium, bone and brain-seeking, carcinogenic strontium-90, and 61 other radionuclides.
As recently as 25 February, TEPCO admitted that highly radioactive water – 50 to 70 times more radioactive than the already high radioactivity levels previously seen onsite – had been leaking into the ocean for nearly a year. TEPCO chose not to disclose the leak until now. The fishermen’s union declared this latest news a complete breach of trust between the utility and the local fisherman.
And this, at a time when TEPCO has been seeking approval from the local fishermen’s union to start dumping some 297,000 tons of “treated,” radioactive tritium-contaminated water into the ocean.
Just how big is TEPCO’s radioactive water problem?
Arakawa River in Sekikawa. A Greenpeace monitoring team found radiation levels high enough to require evacuation in several locations to the northwest of the crisis-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, including Iitate village, 40km from the plant and 20km beyond the official evacuation zone. 03/27/2011 © Christian Åslund / Greenpeace
Well, let’s get down to the numbers:
- 320,000 tons – the amount of highly contaminated water as of December 2014 waiting in about 1000 massive tanks onsite for “treatment” to remove the 62 radioactive elements contaminating it – except for the radioactive hydrogen isotope, tritium.
- 300 tons – water per day sprayed into the reactor vessels to cool the molten reactor cores in Units 1-3: cores that no one actually knows the exact location of.
- 800 tons – the amount of groundwater migrating onsite every day. Of which, 300-400 tons becomes radioactively contaminated.
- 400 tons – the amount of highly radioactive water flowing into the Pacific Ocean every day – a figure that does not include this latest leak announced in February.
- 11,000 tons – the estimated amount of highly contaminated water sitting in trenches – which TEPCO has attempted to pump up for treatment with limited success.
The crux of this is that, not only does the contamination continue to flow from the reactor site and into the environment, but the locating of the reactor cores and decommissioning of the site are themselves contingent upon controlling this onsite watery onslaught.
In an attempt to get a grip on the natural hydrology of the site, TEPCO has focused on two major projects: building a sea wall to control the massive radioactive leaks into the ocean and building an ice wall to reduce the amount of water flowing onsite every day.
The efficacy of both projects raise significant doubts. Both projects are based on the assumption that 30 meters below the surface, the soil layers become impermeable rock, which would serve as a sort of natural floor, preventing water from moving beneath the walls.
Unfortunately, independent geological surveys show that reactor site is built on the soil equivalent of a sponge – highly permeable sand and pumice stone – to a depth of 200 meters.
Offsite, the situation in surrounding communities is tragically surreal.
Bags of Contaminated Soil in Fukushima. Piles of bags containing contaminated soil, mud and grass at a site in Iitate village, three and a half years after the nuclear accident. 10/27/2014 © Noriko Hayashi / Greenpeace
Decontamination efforts are generating a massive amount of radioactive waste. This waste is packed into huge cubic meter black bags and moved to temporary sites. 54,000 thousand such open-air, temporary, rad waste storage sites lie scattered throughout the surrounding areas, including in the backyards of homes, parking lots, and parks. (Reference) Official estimates of the storage volume required to house this mountain of radwaste are between 15 and 28 million cubic meters of waste, enough to fill 12 to 23 Tokyo Domes.
In short, the decontamination efforts are not getting “rid” of the radioactive problem – they are simply moving it, and sometimes not very far.
In places like the heavily contaminated city of Iitate, thousands of decontamination workers swarm over the site – many bent over a bit of curb or sidewalk scrubbing with a toothbrush – a poignant reminder of both the enormity of the problem and the deep losses for the community members who once lived here. Now, four years on, these are still nuclear ghost towns.
And in spite of such valiant efforts on the part of the decontamination workers, the sheer magnitude of the problem seems to prevent real success.
Greenpeace radiation experts have visited Fukushima 23 times – the first in the weeks immediately following the start of the disaster. In October 2014, Greenpeace monitoring results from Iitate (40km from Fukushima Daiichi), Fukushima city (60km), Miyakoji of Tamura city (20km) and Kawauchi village (20km) showed that efforts at decontamination were still failing to reduce contamination in many areas to meet the Japanese government’s long-term decontamination target level of 0.23micro Sv/h. In Kawauchi, part of which had its evacuation order lifted in October 2014, Greenpeace monitoring found 59% of our radiation measurements were over the target level and, again, with higher levels found away from the roads.
But people cannot be expected to live full, meaningful lives in their former communities by being confined to clean “corridors” along the roads and walkways. This was once a heavily agricultural region. The loss of the land means the loss of an entire way of life and many former residents’ entire livelihoods.
Approximately 120,000 nuclear refugees are still living in temporary housing, their lives left in limbo: not enough compensation to establish a life somewhere else, and either not able to, or choosing not to return to their former homes.
Namie town is completely abandoned and an officially closed off area. Only clean-up and nuclear workers from the plant are allowed into the zone with special permission. Level of radiation: 0.43 micro Sievert per hour. The normal rate before the Fukushima nuclear disaster was 0.08 microsieverts an hour. The impact of the Fukushima meltdown in the surrounding villages is already obvious with abandoned homes and gardens rapidly falling into decay. 06/01/2014 © Robert Knoth / Greenpeace
“Why would people come back here permanently to live?” asks Masami Yoshizawa, a farmer who refused to leave his cattle herd in Namie. “There is no infrastructure any more; no schools, shops or transport.”
And that is a question no one should ever have to ask – particularly not when the disaster is man-made.
On this day, as we do every day, we remember the victims – many of whom are still suffering from this nuclear disaster. And we will continue to fight, with the majority of the people of Japan who oppose any nuclear restart, to ensure that the future is one which is safe, clean, and nuclear-free.
Add your name to the petition today, to show the Japanese policy-makers and their industry allies, that we believe a #ZeroNuclear future is possible, for Japan and the world.
If you would like to share your own story and hope for our shared energy future in the comments, please feel welcome. (note: we may tweet items from the comments, we will ask you first).
Kendra Ulrich is a Global Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace Japan.
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