Thursday, August 07, 2014

Fukushima's reactors continue to leak today

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Though Fukushima is not expected to directly affect human health outside of Japan, the radiation pouring into the Pacific may contaminate the global seafood supply. Radioactive iodine is taken up in the thyroid tissue of fish and marine mammals, and cesium into the muscles. Cesium has a half-life of 30 years, so it will continue to remain active in our oceans for decades to come. As these toxic materials build up along the food chain from sediments to seaweed and phytoplankton to fish and then humans (a term scientists call ‘biomagnification’), the organisms become increasingly dangerous to ingest. Radioactive materials in food sources come into contact with people internally, as opposed to externally through the environment, so the safe limits for consumption must be monitored closely. This is a more serious threat to human and marine life in proximity to the Fukushima reactors, and is less of an issue for fish populations further away from the site. The U.S. West Coast, for instance, does not appear to be at risk for radioactive contamination because cesium is quickly flushed out of a fish’s system so long as its nearby water is relatively free of radioactivity.

Fishing in Pacific waters around Fukushima has been closed since the disaster, for the seafood contains radioactive levels unsafe for human consumption. This is detrimental to the livelihoods of Japanese fishermen who previously relied on the eastern coast to feed their families as well as support themselves financially.  Tourism in Japan dropped after the disaster, from 8.6 million in 2010 to just 6.2 million in 2011—a staggering difference of 27.8%. Though national levels of tourism have rebounded, tourism surrounding Fukushima has virtually died out. Declines in both the fishing and tourism industries have hurt the local economy, in addition to the astounding expenses associated with containment and attempted clean up of the radioactive material (an estimated $58 billion project!) Japan now imports more than 90% of its energy from overseas, passing higher energy costs onto citizens.

Fukushima's reactors continue to leak today, more than three years after the nuclear explosions. Continuous leaking has exacerbated the radiation problem immensely: in 2013, radiation readings in the waters surrounding the plant “jumped more than 20% to their highest level of the current radioactive leak crisis.” Water testing in the reactor buildings showed radioactive material levels at 2,200 millisieverts, enough to kill an unprotected person within hours. (For reference, 20 millisieverts per year is the current average limit for nuclear industry employees.)

Though the Fukushima explosion was initially brought on by an unfortunate combination of human fallacy and natural disaster, little has been done since to prepare for and combat future disasters. In May of 2014, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPKO), the owner of the nuclear plant, began pumping stored, contaminated water into the ocean due to lack of additional storage capacity. The water is monitored before it is directed into the ocean (though there are no standards in place for contamination levels that are forbidden from being pumped into the sea, rendering this method virtually useless.) Last month, in June 2014, TEPCO began building an ice wall to isolate toxic waters at Fukushima from clean groundwater flowing down from the mountainside. However, this project will not be completed until 2015 at the very earliest, and the wall itself is not a comprehensive solution. Dr. Helen Caldicott, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, believes that Fukushima “is not over and will never end… [The radioactive contamination] cannot be neutralized and it cannot be prevented from spreading in the future.” Dr. Calidicott recommends closing all nuclear power plants and replacing them with solar, wind and tidal energy sources.

 There is no global ocean database for nuclear contamination, and a reference point for safe levels of radiation (for humans and ecosystems) has not yet been determined. Local disasters, even those as devastating as Fukushima and Chernobyl, are small in comparison to the world’s vast oceans. However, the Index could possibly detect these events when applied at a regional scale over an extended period of time. Even on a regional scale, though, it is difficult to separate the damage of nuclear disasters from the many other hazardous substances in the environment. The Index is ever evolving with advancements in science and data collection, so future indices may be better equipped to include more of these “hidden” hazards such as radioactive waste.

 Most importantly, it is vital to remember that these radioactive materials should never reach our air, oceans, skin or food supply in the first place. Once they are set free, they pose potential problems to both humans and the environment for decades, even centuries, to come. The first step in reducing the risk of radioactive materials in the ocean is to prevent these nuclear disasters from occurring.
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