TOXIC WATER: Aquatic Fallout & Future in the Aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster

The nuclear meltdown of Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 12, 2011, caused a cleanup process that will not end for generations.
The nuclear meltdown of Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 12, 2011, caused a cleanup process that will not end for generations.

By Scott A. Rowan

The person has not yet been born who knows how to solve the permanent problem that will require children and grandchildren and their children to work on daily, attempting to contain the perpetually-generating radioactive byproducts still being created five years after the nuclear meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, according to various experts.

Tanks of radiation-contaminated water are seen at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, in this photo taken by Kyodo on March 11, 2015. Credit: REUTERS/Kyodo (JAPAN)
Tanks of radiation-contaminated water are seen at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)’s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, in this photo taken by Kyodo on March 11, 2015. Credit: REUTERS/Kyodo (JAPAN)

Five years after the historic disaster, the only thing that scientists, engineers, conservationists, politicians and concerned citizens can agree upon is that nobody really knows how long it will take to clean up the disaster. Though Japanese officials offer rosy predictions of achieving deadlines within a few years, experts reveal that not only are the estimates inaccurate reportings about containment but that the cleaning up of the cleanup is a topic conveniently avoided by officials and is one that will take generations to supervise.

“No one really knows how long it will take,” said Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany, “but it will be decades and decades and decades.”

On March 11, 2011, the eruption of the largest recorded earthquake in Japan’s history and the fourth-largest in global history since recordings began in 1900 caused a tsunami that damaged the entire Pacific rim from California to Antarctica. Even worse, the earthquake and tsunami knocked out power to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cooling systems, causing a level-7 meltdown with three of the four plant’s nuclear reactors melting. Even five years later, experts have no idea about the extent of the disaster because two robotic vehicles failed that were sent into the radioactive reactors to take measurements needed to assess the damage.

At the heart of the problem is the need to use water to cool the melting nuclear material, which creates radioactive waste water that must be stored and filtered before being eventually released into the Pacific ocean. Complicating the issue of water is the natural water seeping into the radioactive areas and the natural local runoff of nearby rivers and streams.

Local waters have been diverted to avoid the plant and flow, instead, into the ocean. That was the easy part of the three-part water problem. The hardest parts are the other two areas of aquatic concern: the water seeping into the nuclear plants from the ground and the water seeping out of welded water tanks holding the radioactive water that was used to cool melted nuclear cores. estimate that as much as 400 tons of water seep into the radioactive nuclear plants each day before continuing into the ocean. To contain the runoff, Japanese officials created a plan that sounds like something a James Bond villain would possess. To stop groundwater seepage, a lattice of approximately 1,550 pipes were installed on the north, south, and west sides of plant that faces the ocean on its eastward side. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) officials plan to pump chilling liquid through the pipes, freezing the ground surrounding the power plant. Weeks ago, TEPCO officials announced that all the pipework was in place and that they were ready to begin creating the “ice wall” as soon the Nuclear Regulation Authority grants approval.

If the “ice wall” works, that leaves the massive problem of what to do with the constantly accumulating tonnage of radioactive water is the growing daily.

Currently, more than 1,000 steel tanks hold approximately 750,000 tons of contaminated water, which is expected to reach 1 million tons in the next year or so. Those estimates seem drastically low, however, considering that it is also estimated that 300 tons of contaminated water is generated every day, with a hope to cut that in half over the year.

The goal is to clean the radioactive water, of course, before it is dumped into the ocean. TEPCO officials claim to be able to remove 62 nuclides from the contaminated water, but not tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that humans are exposed to on a daily basis because it is naturally occurring, however, prolonged exposure to it can be harmful to humans.

On September 14 2015, TEPCO dumped approximately 850 tons of filtered water into the ocean.

With Japanese debris washing ashore from Alaska to California, concern by American citizens about tainted ocean water from the Fukushima disaster forced U.S. officials to begin testing for specific radioactive elements. Though experts detected a rise in the radioactive isotope cessium-134 immediately after the meltdown, that was expected and not a major concern. Cessium-134 has a relatively short half-life, approximately two years, compared to other long-lasting isotopes, such as cessium-137, which is still detectable in the ocean after testing in the 1940s and 1950s.

To assure fears, experts claim the rise in tainted ocean water is minimal enough to humans that it would take a person swimming in the tainted water for an entire to experience a radioactive equivalent of one dental x-ray. Concerned about the effects the disaster would have on aquatic life, Kelp Water was created by a consortium of marine scientists from Alaska to Mexico who measure the long-lasting impact of radioactive isotopes on kelp and seaweed. Measurements of radioactive levels have proven to be small enough to not warrant concern, but that could change quickly.

“We are not completely out of the woods,” said Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. “I expect to see small leaks for decades to come. … It is a difficult thing to have soil and groundwater and buildings contaminated to this extent and not have that leaking out.”


Construction on the "Chernobyl Sarcophagus" which will entomb the former nuclear power plant under steel and concrete.
Construction on the “Chernobyl Sarcophagus” which will entomb the former nuclear power plant under steel and concrete.

Which takes us back to heart of the problem: radioactive waste. Remember, the tainted water is a byproduct of trying to clean up the mess, not the actual mess itself. While TEPCO officials offer optimistic timetables of the year 2020 or 2021 when the radiated water is under control, that doesn’t begin to address what to do with the actual melted infrastructure within the reactors 2 and 3, but mostly withing reactor 1, which is believed to have sustained the most meltdown. Though, of course, the extent of the problem is so large that current technology doesn’t exist to measure it.

Even the most optimistic plans estimate it will take 30 to 40 years to contain the radioactive material. However, one nuclear regulator recently began talking in terms of 70 to 80 years or more to deal with the disaster. With no established method to contain a nuclear meltdown of Fukushima’s portions, it is going to take an invention not yet invented or an approach offered by someone who does not currently have the voice to be heard to make the cleanup take closer to a decade than a century. In fact, the person with the best answer may not even be born yet. (The 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the Ukraine was “contained” by cementing the melted cores in a permanent, massive, radioactive block of concrete and steel; a method eschewed by Japanese officials.)

“No one has ever done what we’re doing, but 30 to 40 years is a target that we can work towards,” said Naohiro Masuda, TEPCO’s head of decommissioning. “There are so many people involved that it would be wrong to alter that deadline on a whim. We’ve established a goal and need to show ingenuity to reach it, not take the easy way out.”

Translation: we don’t know how long it will take.