A storage tank at the site of the Fukushima nuclear reactors has sprung a “significant” leak and is now pouring out toxic water. Approximately 300 tons of radioactive water have already gone into the ground from where they can seep into the nearby Pacific Ocean.
As of Wednesday, Japan’s nuclear agency has upgraded the severity level of the leak from one to three on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Eight would be considered the gravest leak; each single-digit increase on the IAEA represents a tenfold increase in the severity of radiation released.
The leak in the Fukushima storage tank is the severest warning given the wrecked power plant since a powerful tsunami and a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred in 2011. The resulting meltdown of three of the plant’s six reactors was ranked the most severe possible, on a par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
A single puddle of water from the leaking storage tank is now emitting 100 millisieverts an hour of radiation. That is, the water is so contaminated that, if you were standing 50 centimeters away from it, after one hour you’d be exposed to five times the dose limit for Japanese workers.
Those workers, whose task is to contain the leak and remove the remaining water from the tank, certainly face huge risks in cleaning up the site. After ten hours in proximity to the contaminated water (which they’re trying to contain with sandbags), they are may develop radiation sickness, become nauseous and experience a drop in their white blood cells.
Teams of workers must constantly be rotated and most of the contaminated water — stored in some 1,000 tanks built distressingly close (about 500 yards) to the shoreline – has probably already seeped into the ground, according to the BBC.
Just the day before, Tepco, the plant’s operator, had said the leak was far less severe. The company has yet to identify what the cause of the leak was and also says that is no evidence that any water has made its way into the ocean. Such statements from Tepco are hardly reassuring. Back in July, the utility admitted for the first time that groundwater full of radioactive isotypes has been making its way into the ocean.
The leaking water tank is yet another sign of Tepco’s struggle to clean-up the site. The utility has been pumping massive amounts of water into the plant to cool down the nuclear cores but, because the reactors’ containment vessels were damaged in the 2011 meltdown, these are unable to contain that water, Ars Technica says. The recent leak from a storage tank is only compounding the amount of toxic water that is spreading into the environment.
Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is a supporter of nuclear energy. It is only recently that he has said he has lost confidence in Tepco’s ability to handle the situation at Fukushima and said that Japanese government will now intervene to help Tepco stop the leaks.
It’s an announcement — made amid mounting public anger over the leaks and Korea’s Asiana Airlines canceling four chartered flights between Seoul and Fukushima in October out of concerns about the radiation – that is arguably too little and too late in view of the hot and leaky mess that remains in Fukushima. After two years, Ars Technica underscores, we still know very little about the state of the site, including whether all the nuclear fuel has been shut down.
“All signs point to a significant contamination of the groundwater at the site with radioactive cesium,” says Ars Technica. As one cesium isotope has a half-life of 30 years, the contamination is more than likely to be a very long-term problem. Authorities say that radioactive levels in seafood from the immediate area of Fukushima “currently pose no health risks” but the chances for radioactivity spreading throughout the food chain increase the longer the contamination exists. Leaks like the most recent one in the storage tank are only making a very bad situation worse and worse.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons