Radioactive Leakage in Japan Leads to Environmental Change

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Bethany Sampson's picture
Jacqueline LaForce

In late August, evidence revealed that the effects of the 2011 tsunami are still being felt in Japan. Gallons of radioactive contaminants are now seeping into the ocean.

Japan now finds itself in a state of panic as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant suffers from what is now being called a level three “serious incident.”

The plant has been facing difficulty ever since it was damaged by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011. Recently, however, radioactive contaminated water has been leaking from the plant’s steel storage tanks, making its way into the Pacific Ocean.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) built the tanks, which were designed to temporarily store water that was used to cool down radioactive fuel after three nuclear reactors went into meltdown during the 2011 catastrophe. Meltdown occurs when the core of a nuclear reactor becomes so overheated that radiation is released.

“At some point, TEPCO will have no choice but to start releasing some of the water,” said Dr. Hiroshi Miyano to the New York Times.

The leakage at the plant went unnoticed by workers for an entire month. As of late August 2013, about 300 tons of water containing high amounts of strontium-90 and cesium-137, two highly dangerous radioactive materials, have escaped from the tanks, equaling ten tons per day. For a better understanding of this amount, it would only take about a week for the leaking tanks to fill an Olympic size swimming pool.

TEPCO has publically acknowledged the crisis in response to the leakage as it now poses serious health and environmental risks. Clean-up crews, along with those living in Eastern Japan, now face potential harm.

The degree of radioactivity in the contaminated water is so dangerously high that it would only take about ten hours for radioactive sickness to occur in a person who is directly exposed to it.

Short-term radioactive sickness includes feelings of nausea and a decrease in one’s white blood cell count, weakening the immune system. Long-term illnesses, such as cancer and DNA mutations, are also linked to radiation, however, more research is required to prove that the leakage at the Fukushima plant will cause such long-term effects.   

One major concern among health experts is the presence of strontium-90 in the contaminated water. Unlike cesium-137, which exits the body quickly, strontium-90 remains active in the bones of living organisms.

Nearly half of the bottom-dwelling fish that were caught off the coast of Fukushima tested positive for radioactive poisoning. This poses a serious problem for Japanese fishermen who have lost an estimated 1.3 trillion yen (12.5 billion dollars) due to the power plant leakage. Some of the seafood affected by the radioactive contaminants include: cod, flounder, halibut, shellfish and seaweed.

The radioactive water is expected to reach the Western coast of America within the next few years. Experts remain confident, however, that by this time the toxic chemicals will dilute to innocuous levels. By tracking the contaminated water, researchers hope to learn more about the paths of oceanic currents.

As the water continues to leak from the tanks and make its way into the ocean, TEPCO and the Japanese government agree that there is no time to waste as they now search for potential solutions to the problem.

One such way involves freezing the ground around the leaking tanks to create a protective barrier, preventing the radioactive water from reaching the ocean. While this plan might seem ideal, the technology required for its construction has never been used on such a massive scale, so there is no guarantee of success. Furthermore, it will cost Japan 50 billion yen (410 million dollars) to finance the project.

Another solution proposed by TEPCO involves filtering the contaminated water so that it can be safely released into the ocean. Japanese fishermen are strongly against this proposed strategy, as it yields more serious potential setbacks to their industry if the filtering process is not effective.

Whether through sophisticated ground freezing technology, an elaborate filtering system or some ingenious, not yet proposed solution, one thing is clear: something must be done quickly to put an end to this environmental disaster.

 
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