Radioactive Water Leaks – An Overview

It is a mess.

There is no other word for it. The clean-up of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant has been beset by problems, one after another, since the triple disaster of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear melt-down that struck on March 11, 2011.

Granted the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), which maintains the plant, had no previous experience in dealing with this kind of “super-sized” disaster. However, after more than 3 years and despite strenuous efforts by TEPCO and others, it continues to be … a mess.

As reported in Live Science, one aspect of the cleanup has proved particularly challenging are the  Radioactive water leaks.

  • The reactors themselves had water pipes attached directly to them to let water in and out and to provide cooling during normal operation.  Most of these pipes burst, and some of them are still  leaking radioactive water.
  • The basements of the Daiichi plant’s reactor buildings are flooded with groundwater. This groundwater became radioactive from contact with exposed material from the wrecked reactors.
  • An estimated total of around 400 tons (96000 gallons) of this radioactive groundwater flowed into the nuclear plant’s man-made harbor. Despite TEPCO’s continuing struggles to contain it, some of this water leaked beyond existing barriers into the ocean.  Is it unknown how much water has leaked per day.
  • The Daiichi plant also has an underground system of tunnels and pits for cables and pipes. These tunnels and pits were flooded with highly radioactive water immediate after the disaster, during the melt-down of the plant’s reactors. These  are also  still flooded and have been  continuously leaking radioactive water into the ocean, despite efforts to seal them off.
  • On top of this, there have been more recent problems with the large and ever-growing number of storage tanks for the radioactive water pumped up from basements and tunnels. The storage tanks are placed in and around the Daiichi plant, now some of them are also leaking.

One has to agree with Dale Klein, former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who said:

This water issue is going to be their biggest challenge for a long time.

Impact on Marine Life

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is providing links to scientific organizations, whoare monitoring radioactivity on land, in the air, and in the ocean.
By August 2014, there has been no serious danger in the USA from any radioactivity from the Daiichi plant.

Some species of fish, such as the Bluefin Tuna, have shown levels of radiation, but those levels are still much too low to present any threat to people.
As Jean-Michel Cousteau wrote on his blog on January 31, 2014:

The good news, at least so far, is that radioactivity in these fish is of low concentration and not a threat to the health of people who eat the fish.

Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has been monitoring the radioactive levels in water samples from the coast off the Daiichi plant and elsewhere.

It’s very much a coastal Japan contaminant problem

Buesseler said in an interview in the Cape Cod Times:

Despite carrying “fingerprints” of Fukushima isotopes, the [Bluefin] tuna is still safe to eat, with traces of radiation 100 times lower than what is acceptable for consumption levels in the U.S.

In the ocean, like in all other ecosystems, every is intertwined, and radioactive substances of different kinds do travel up through the food-chain.  The WHOI has a series of articles and scientific findings about the Fukushima incident on their website, for example,  “How Is Fukushima’s Fallout Affecting Marine Life?” Their article “Radioisotopes in the Ocean” provides a good overview of radioactive substances and the threat they pose..

At this time, it does not look as if the added radiation flowing in water from the Daiichi plant into the ocean will pose a long-term health risk to people.

 The Ongoing Cleanup

Cleanup efforts  at the Daiichi plant have become an international affair. TEPCO, as well as companies and researchers from several countries, have been trying several different ways to stop the radioactive water from mixing with groundwater and flowing into the ocean. The Japan Times has a comprehensive timeline of past efforts, as well as updates, on their website.

The challenge remains twofold – confine the radioactive water and decontaminate it. There are obstacles at every turn – from yet another radioactive water leak, and yet another water containment method that did not work, to public protest about releasing decontaminated water into the ocean, and public resistance to establishing nuclear waste dumps anywhere. About the only thing, that IS having some success is the actual decontamination of the radioactive water, by removing radioactive substances. Growing mistrust of government and authorities is becoming almost as much of a problem as the nuclear clean-up itself.

In April 2014, after several notable failures, TEPCO tried yet again to freeze the radioactive water in the tunnels under the basement of the Daiichi plant, to prevent leakage. By August, most of the water had frozen, NHK News reports, and TEPCO will now re-enforce the ice with cement in the unfrozen area. In addition, TEPCO is planning to freeze soil to create an even stronger barrier to contain the radioactive water.
They are so brave, the people, who work in what is left of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant. They risk their health – and their lives – every minute they spend at work.  Any malfunction of their safety-suits and equipment could be disastrous. Yet they carry on, because it has to be done.

There is merit in the old sayings:
– If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again –
– Where there is a will, there is a way –

Yes, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant is a mess.  But humankind can walk on the moon – surely we will eventually succeed in un-messing poor, battered Fukushima Daiichi.