July 24, 2013 in Environment, Health

Fukushima Update: Leaks and the Cost of Clean-up

imagesIn the last few weeks, the owner-operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant complex, TEPCO, was forced to concede that radiation emissions from the plant itself has greatly increased. This would seem to coincide with an upswing of seismic activity in the area. While the temblors have not been of significant strength or duration, it seems plausible that the new ‘quakes have caused existing cracks to seep contaminants into the ocean at a greater pace than before.

Since June, TEPCO has recorded significant spikes in the presence of tritium, caesium-134 and -137, as well as strontium-90. All of these isotopes present significant biological risk at the levels recorded. Tritium levels recorded on July 3, 2013 were 2,300 bequerels/litre, which was the highest ever detected since TEPCO began measuring radiation in the ocean waters in June 2011.

Obviously, things are not going to plan at Fukushima.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga warned TEPCO that they must stop the leak quickly. Economy and Industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi in turn criticized TEPCO for releasing data too slowly. Both comments ring true, but the reality of stopping the leak quickly is a matter of good luck with that. The desire is there, but the technology isn’t. With abundant groundwater contamination in the vicinity of the reactor as well as increased radiation in the adjacent ocean, it’s clear that containment breaches of at least one reactor core has taken place. Radiation doesn’t just come from anywhere, it comes from inside. Given the dramatic increase in radiation levels, it’s reasonable to suspect that we’re seeing more than an increase of coolant leakage.

Decontamination of the surrounding areas has been slow and its effectiveness has been called into question. Indeed, the problem is that the scope of the problem is bigger than anybody has ever had to deal with in the past. Chernobyl is in the ballpark, but its buildings were relatively easy to seal within a cement sarcophagus. Fukushima takes the situation to a whole new realm thanks to complete meltdowns of one or more reactor cores, breached cooling systems and the potential for a direct release of core material into the earth beneath the reactors. Add to that the fact that the site is directly on the Pacific coast and you have a recipe for difficult.

On July 22nd, a group of approximately 100 fishermen gathered to meet with TEPCO officials in a private briefing. The fishermen expressed doubt and anger over TEPCO’s assurances that not much radiation had spread beyond the immediate vicinity of the reactor site. Indeed, if you’re a fisherman who makes his/her livelihood on the ocean, you’re probably intimate with the Oyashio Current and how it will push contaminants south from Fukushima towards Chiba Prefecture, where it will meet the Kuroshio Current and be drawn eastwards towards the central Pacific ocean. Measuring the radiation, therefore, is a matter of looking to the south and being aware of such things as inverse-squared laws. TEPCO suggested drawing lines on the map to delineate safe fishing zones, but the fishermen cautioned that radiation and currents were unlikely to obey the lines on the map.

Finally, experts from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology studied the cost of decontamination for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. They estimated that the total cost of clean-up in Japan could exceed $50 billion. The central Japanese government, meanwhile, has only earmarked some $11 billion in funds for the task. Apparently, the government is optimistic of its success.

Personally, I suspect that even the $50 billion figure is going to prove to be overly optimistic. This nuclear accident goes far beyond any government’s or overseeing body’s experience. The technology to cap and clean up a disaster of this magnitude simply has not been created yet. It could take decades to get a handle on things and make reasonable progress. And all the while, the facility remains a sitting duck for further seismic and tsunami events.

Not the chipper update I was hoping to post. Two-plus years later, things are not looking any better at Fukushima or its surrounding areas.


  1. July 24, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Alice Hess


    Thank you for the update, greatly appreciated. We hear zilch. We worry about all of it, including the West U.S. & Canadian coasts. If monitoring is being done, finding out about it is not easy. Even though the report isn’t reassuring, I’m thankful for it. Be well, be safe!

    1. July 24, 2013 at 10:00 am

      Trane Francks


      Thank you for the kind words, Ali. The situation here is complex and I have not spoken of the worrisome issues surrounding the spent-fuel pools. With the new levels of radiation being released, I am once again considering accelerating a move of my family away from the Japanese archipelago. *sigh*

    2. July 24, 2013 at 10:05 am

      Trane Francks


      One other thing, though: My Geiger counter, a Radex RD1503, is reporting stable levels of radiation in Tokyo. On any given day, we see levels of ~0.12-to-0.16 microSv/hour, which presents no discernible heal risk whatsoever. At those levels, I’m far more at risk from the couple of margaritas I’m likely to imbibe following a burrito. 🙂

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