The horrors of the Fukushima nuclear disaster have receded into the background for many as it no longer dominates the headlines, but in reality the threat continues and is being perpetuated by further incidents of adverse weather.
Typhoons hitting Japan have been contributing to the spread of radioactive substances leaking from the damaged nuclear plant and assisting their dispersal through the country's waterways.
A huge tsunami wave, triggered by a massive earthquake, crashed through the power station in March 2011 and caused a major nuclear incident which was equal to, or possibly worse than, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that occurred in April 1986, as Chernobyl only contained 180 tons of nuclear material prior to the catastrophe, whereas Fukushima contained a massive 1,760 tons.
Tsukuba University has completed a number of studies on Fukushima since November 2011, and a recent study conducted in conjunction with the French Climate and Environmental Science laboratory (LSCE) illustrated how soil contaminated with radiation from the plant gets washed away by fierce winds and heavy rain. The soil is deposited in rivers and streams, and ultimately ends up being transported out into the sea.
A researcher from LSCE, Olivier Evrard, said that, although the process may take many months, storms and typhoons exacerbate the problem and that “there is a definite dispersal towards the ocean.”
The nuclear accident caused a huge amount of radioactive particles to be scattered into the atmosphere, which then settled and became attached to soil in areas around the plant. Researchers have discovered that soil erosion assists the transport of radioactive varieties of cesium-134 and 1, from mountains down into rivers then out into the Pacific Ocean.Unfortunately, Mother Nature is inadvertently helping to disperse the radioactive particles; this fact was proved when scientists measured the levels of radioactivity in Japanese rivers last year, which saw low storm frequency, and found that these had dropped. Levels rose again this year after violent storms displaced and distributed a fresh quantity of caesium particles.
This is “proof that the source of the radioactivity has not diminished upstream” said Mr Evrard.
Evrard explained that this area of radioactive contamination had been previously overlooked by scientists who had focused only on pollution resulting from direct fallout, but he warned that the dissemination of radioactivity via the waterways was a serious issue which must also be monitored.
It is claimed that human incompetence has also contributed to the spread of radioactive materials, and in general, the clean-up operation taking place since the disaster has been widely criticized. There have been accusations that Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), the Japanese utility company that operates the plant, has been grossly incompetent and disingenuous, and that they have constantly downplayed the potential health risks. TEPCO have actually admitted that they deliberately used radiation detectors known to give deceptively low readings, and consequently the risk is now thought to be 18 times higher than previously thought.
There have subsequently been a series of further crises at the plant since the accident occurred and these later incidents have been barely contained by the plant’s operator and the Japanese government. Critics suggest that the situation is only going to get worse and that, if TEPCO have lied about the radiation readings, then they could well be keeping other important facts secret. It is thought that the plant actually suffered a fuel core meltdown but that TEPCO refuse to admit that this is the truth. If so, the facility may be in danger of a total collapse, a scenario that would release a massive cloud of lethal radiation destined to arrive on North American shores.
International help would be required in order to deal with such a large-scale problem, but this has been declined by Japan for two years as it was maintained that TEPCO had the situation under control. When it became apparent that this was not the case, the Japanese government finally intervened in August and, after yet another major leak - the third in 30 days and all caused by human error - the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally asked for global aid to help Japan manage the escalating problem at the plant.
The negligence has resulted in tons of contaminated water leaking into the Pacific Ocean, one of the most significant sources of marine life in the world's food chain. Despite this, the Japanese authorities still maintain that there is no cause for concern:
“It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo,” Abe said. “It poses no problem whatsoever. … There are no health-related problems until now, nor will there be in the future. I make the statement to you in the most emphatic and unequivocal way.”
The rest of the world does not share Abe's optimism, however, and certainly science is not substantiating his hopeful view of the future. We can only hope that a global effort, beginning with assistance from the French authorities, will finally begin to combat the problem and that a proper assessment of the risks can be made.
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