Fukushima

Since the previous year we can read that “new record levels” of radiation have been reached, but when the context is missing and the details are scarce, we don’t have a good impression of how severe the situation is. It is probably a good idea to find different sources of information and the common theme among them. Although measurements are made often, there are different measurement devices, different places in the Fukushima perimeter where they are located, and different variables that they track, which may change over time. Additionally, these devices may not generate accurate data as there may be some “amplifiers” in the environment. All this makes previous measurements obsolete and the attempts to analyze the data less accurate.

After the earthquake and the tsunami in March 2011 have hit the nuclear plant, and the subsequent accident led to the evacuation of over 160000 people, the Japanese government has remained quiet about the situation there, claiming that everything is under control. It is said that “downplaying” the incident is in its best interest, especially when it knew of the radiation, but didn’t share this with the public. Withholding information alone should be enough to raise the red light in our mind.

The melting of three reactors (out of six) could have been postponed if the engineers working at the plant had access to 12V batteries. But the earthquake damaged the infrastructure, so their delivery became impossible. At the same time, the operator of the plant was getting too many requests for resources that they couldn’t meet and the batteries didn’t seem to be of highest priority. Without them, the engineers couldn’t stop the melting of the reactors.

Some measures to prevent dangerous effects, like an explosion of a reactor due to overheating, can actually make the subsequent situation harder to manage. If we consider that water has been poured from the sky to cool down reactors, which effectively contaminates it before it penetrates the ground, then it becomes clear that it should be dealt with the consequences of this too. We shouldn’t wonder when we hear that it was leaked into the ocean.

Radiation levels in the Fukushima perimeter can vary quite a lot (as reported by Greenpeace), sometimes without any plausible reason. In one case, they found high radiation levels near a parking and in another in a pile of sand. This means that there may be local factors that contribute to the accumulation of radiation in certain places. Even if someone thinks that there is no radiation, this may not be necessarily so. Most measurement devices are positioned only in a certain perimeter around Fukushima, so there is no way to know what radiation levels exist outside of it. There are attempts to install more devices and expand the zone of measurement. But there is no way to know the radiation levels outside of it.

The hot melting reactors may burn into the ground and when they reach ground water, the workers there get exposed to radioactive steam. Even when the reactor doesn’t reach the level of the ground water, the last still moves towards the ocean and meets on its way radioactive isotopes from the reactors, which contaminate it. To prevent that this contaminated water reaches the ocean, the decision has been made to pump it off the ground and store it in big water tanks near the facility. The problem is that there are now hundreds of these tanks, which take much more space than the reactors themselves. They have been hastily built and are said to last around five years. To save space, they are positioned close to each other, and a potential leak or explosion in any of them may unlock a chain reaction in others, leading to sudden extreme spikes in radiation levels. (In one case, it was said that radiation levels increased 6500 times only in an hour.) We often hear how new leaks have been found. A proposal to store the contaminated water in nearby tankers and bring it “somewhere else” has been rejected by the government. As many water tanks are already full, merely having much rain on site may cause some tanks to overflow. In one such case, water has been pumped out of the tanks (where?) and some of it may have been dumped into the ocean to prevent something worse from happening. How the radiation levels have spread historically through the ocean can be seen in a video. But the effects on the ocean’s flora and fauna will be irreversible. Due to high levels of tritium and other contaminants in the ocean, sardine population has started to disappear and contaminated tuna has been found. We can only expect this trend to continue, which is why some countries have started to ban fish imports from the troubled region. Farmers are worried that their production is becoming radioactive and that it is no longer moral to sell it to customers just to make a profit. I have read (but can’t prove it or explain why this is the case) that leafy vegetables can absorb pollution from the environment, so it may make sense to also measure their radiation levels over time if we view nature as a more precise indicator (than our instrumentation) of what’s truly happening.

What will happen when contaminated ground water levels rise after rain (and interconnected vessels cause it to find a way to move in new directions)? Will radiation decrease as a result of being spread over larger amounts of water (during continuous emits from the reactors) or will individual non-mixing channels carry the majority of it? Will high ground water levels contribute to more mixing, thus making water a threat to people’s health?

The effects of the radioactive pollution may last up to 40 years until full decommissioning happens; Michio Kaku even said that in the case of Fukushima it would take 50-100 years to recover (and probably only if no other cataclysms happen there during this period). He claims that the incident is more severe than Chernobyl, because it continues to unfold. Some of his friends in Tokyo have started to evacuate themselves due to radioactive particles that appeared in the drinking water. There are some estimates that 20-29 times more radiation has been emitted so far in Fukushima than in the Hiroshima bomb. But this is still nothing compared to what could happen as a result of a chain reaction in the water tanks, for example. (If the radioactive water will be stored for many years, tanks last for only a few and there are hundreds of them, how high will be the long-term support costs?) Also, if something bad happens to the bundles of rods used in the reactors (the rods require precise movements and shouldn’t even touch each other), it is estimated that radiation could spike up to 14000 times the levels seen after the Hiroshima bomb. This doesn’t seem as a local catastrophe anymore, but as a global one.

Measurements of (beta ray) radioactivity done lately reveal: 2.2 million becquerel/liter on 9.1.2014, 2.4 million becquerel/liter on 13.1.2014 and 2.7 million becquerel/liter on 16.1.2014. All this means that the worst isn’t behind us as many seem to think. Years after the accident, radiation in some areas continues to increase.

Even small dosages of constant pollution (not only radiation!) over time can have adverse impact on people’s health and lead to the development of cancers. Exposure to high radiation levels means that a worker could get an yearly dosage in just 4 hours. Again, radiation is cumulative, which means that many workers may become ill and die during the period they support the efforts. Even robots aren’t safe in such an environment as their parts are vulnerable to radiation too. The human cost isn’t something to neglect when we consider that an estimated 0.6-1 million workers participated in cleaning up after the Chernobyl catastrophe (Wikipedia). What all people working at Fukushima right now do is very close to heroic. But the plant operator will certainly need to hire more workers over time.

Maybe we should raise more awareness for the issues instead of pretending that they don’t exist. Note that this article resembles my personal understanding, which will be very different from the one of an expert working on site.

Resources:

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