(Image courtesy of Daniel Mueller / Greenpeace)
Over two years have passed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the situation is still looking grim. The water used to cool the nuclear reactors after they were damaged in the 2011 earthquake is leaking from its storage tanks, seeping into the earth and contaminating the ground water. That, in turn, is contaminating sea water on the nearby eastern coast of Japan. It's one big depressing chain of radioactive contamination and, as of yet, nothing substantial has been done about it.
That's presumably because Tokyo Electric Power Company – the company in charge of the plant, also known as Tepco – have put a great deal of effort into insisting that everything is totally fine. Until the end of last month, that is, when they admitted that the water leaks are capable of giving you five-years' worth of radiation exposure within one hour.
And the newest readings, announced on Tuesday, reveal the situation to be even worse than previously thought; the numbers have spiked by more than a fifth to their highest ever levels, meaning it can take just a few hours of exposure for the dosage to become lethal. The accompanying news that the original readings were off because the "wrong equipment" had been used to measure them also doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the people charged with making sure everyone in the local vicinity doesn't die of radiation poisoning.
Seeking a solution to their nuclear hiccup, Tepco have recruited – among others – American company Hanford Engineer Works for clean-up advice. That's the same Hanford that engineered the 9kg plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki during the Second World War – a company that's had its own fair share of criticism, most recently over their own storage leak, which is slowly making its way towards the Columbia River in Washington state.
However, whatever advice they were given from their American brothers in fission, it seems that Tepco have chosen an alternative solution – a solution that sounds like it might be more at home in the pages of a Jim Steranko comic: building a £304 million "ice wall" around the entire site. The basic plan is to drill coolant pipes around the plant, which will hopefully freeze the earth around them and stop contaminated water from trickling through.
Greenpeace taking radiation readings in Fukushima. (Photo courtesy of Noriko Hayashi / Greenpeace)
Yesterday, the Japanese government pledged the money to fund the building of the wall. Which might seem a little foolhardy considering the method has never been used to prevent widespread nuclear contamination before, but at this stage it also seems like the only option they have. Worryingly, Tepco have already tried to encase the radiation by injecting chemicals into the ground to solidify it – under very similar reasoning as the ice wall – but, while it was a short-term success, it ultimately failed to have any permanent effect.
Green Action – a Japanese anti-nuke organisation – are sceptical of the plans, with Executive Director Aileen Mioko Smith telling me, "The feasibility study [an analysis of whether the ice wall proposition will even work] will be completed at the end of the fiscal year [March the 31st, 2014]." That's a long time to wait after recent revelations of the radiation concentration being much higher than expected, with the severity level at the plant itself rising from one to three (seven being the highest) in the past month.
The organisation are also pissed off about the fact that the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority appear to be more concerned with restarting nuclear power than dealing with the radioactive discharge. Of course, profit over principles is par for the course, but for Green Action that doesn't make it any less aggravating. Discussing the topic, Smith told me that the main problem is how "the government doesn't ask for specialist expertise first", instead meeting with contractors before anyone else.
Japan is a country that heavily relies on nuclear power – 30 percent of its electrical power was generated from nuclear reactors prior to the 2011 earthquake – so it's easy to see why they want to get up and running again, especially after having to shut down one of the last two operating reactor sites earlier this week. But as the radiation increases, so does the cost of the clean up, so it seems a wise move to lay off booting up reactors before they have the all clear.
And even if they get that all clear, you have to question what the long-term plan is for the area affected by the leak. Smith told me that the "caesium [caesium-137, a radioactive isotope formed in nuclear fission] will take a long time to go away, since its half-life is 32 years". So you'd expect a drawn-out quarantine in the same fashion as Chernobyl, right?
A worker taking radiation readings at the Fukushima plant. (Photo courtesy of the Tokyo Electric Power Company)
In fact, according to Smith, for whatever bizarre reason, the Japanese government are intent on getting people back to Fukushima. Residents of Chernobyl were made to evacuate areas where they would be exposed to five millisieverts (mSv) of radiation per year; Smith told me that, "Japan's standard for the general public is one mSv per year, but they suddenly raised it to 20 mSv for people living in Fukushima", saying that there "is an assertive policy to get people back in" and that "the government will work to incrementally increase the areas where people 'can return'".
I got in touch with Greenpeace, who explained the lasting effects of the radiation on people living in the region. "Over one third of the children tested had pre-cancerous thyroid nodules," they told me. "This is consistent with what we saw after Chernobyl." Even though no concrete claim can be made that every child who tested positive is going to get cancer, it's pretty clear that it isn't the best of news, and encouraging families to move back into areas with high levels of radiation definitely isn't going to help matters.
Whatever the outcome, the clean up process isn't going to be quick. It's another seven months before planners know whether it's even worth building the ice wall, and – if it turns out that it is – I'd imagine it'll end up taking a little while to bore a bunch of 90ft holes around the entire site.
On the upside, plans are being put together to turn areas outside of the exclusion zones into tourist attractions. Meaning you'll finally have the opportunity to take depressing guided tours around a radioactive scrap site and witness how bad of an idea it is to build a nuclear reactor close to a tectonic plate without any contingency plan for the back up generators going dead.
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