The nuclear crisis in Fukushima, triggered by the March 2011 tsunami, continues to provide negative surprises. The Japanese government has now confirmed that the water in the nuclear plant has exceeded the level of the underground barrier, which means that Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) can no longer contain the leak. This, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, shows that TEPCO has not paid enough attention to the issue.

The agency said that contaminated water is seeping into the sea probably above legal levels, noted one of its directors, Shinji Kinjo. “Right now, we have an emergency situation,” said Kinjo, while acknowledging that there is “a very high possibility” that the underground radioactive water has broken the barrier and is rising to the surface of the ground. Tepco says it has taken several steps to prevent the toxic liquid from reaching the bay, but according to authorities, these efforts have not been enough.

The authorities do not have a definitive assessment on the severity level of the leak yet. In the weeks following the disaster that destroyed the nuclear facility and  for more than two years, the Japanese government allowed TEPCO to pour tens of thousands of tons of water in the Pacific Ocean as an emergency measure. That water was contaminated all along, which is why the pacific ocean has been slowly but surely contaminated with radioactive water. The decision was widely criticized by local fishermen and neighboring countries, and the company had promised that it would not let contaminated water reach the sea again without the permission of the nearby towns. However, water has been leaking on and off — some people say continuously — since that promise was made.

TEPCO issued last Friday an estimate of the size of the leak of radioactive tritium into the sea since the catastrophe occurred. The results show that the pacific ocean has been polluted with between 20 trillion and 40 trillion becquerels since May 2011. This is between 10 and 100 times the amount issued for one year with the plant in normal operation, which is what is allowed under safety standards before the accident: 22 trillion becquerels per year for all the six reactors at the plant. The company has said it will also estimate the flow of strontium, which has a detrimental effect on the environment and tend to accumulate in human bones.

The tsunami caused the melting of the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. The disaster is the worst of its kind in history, even worse than the Chernobyl event in 1986. TEPCO has used large amounts of water to cool the damaged reactors since the explosion of the nuclear plant and it is this water the one that has been leaking for months into the pacific ocean.

Disaster management at Fukushima has been surrounded by secrecy, which has caused much criticism both inside and outside Japan. Nuclear experts last month accused TEPCO of lack of transparency about the leaks. “These actions indicate that TEPCO does not know what it is doing, whether it has a plan or not to protect the environment and people,” said Dale Klein, former director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the United States at a conference in Tokyo.

The Japanese press has also lashed out against the company. “After almost 30 months, Tokyo Electric Power has given little reason to be confident in its ability to handle the radioactive water that is leaking” at Fukushima, wrote the newspaper Asahi Shimbun. According to the daily, “the fishermen and residents have lost patience for the many setbacks.

The most pressing question is what will TEPCO do with the radioactive water as it will need to continue injecting new water to keep the reactors cool. The company does not have unlimited space to store the water that will continue increase in volume. As of now, TEPCO does not have a plan to keep the reactors from getting hotter that does not include injecting water. With radioactive water leaking non-stop on the pacific ocean and the BP oil spill still leaking in the Gulf of Mexico, an even more important question arises. How long will it take for both the pacific and Atlantic oceans to be uninhabitable and their ecosystems dead?

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