Why You Should Still Be Paying Attention to Fukushima 5 Years Later

Claire Bernish
March 11, 2016

(ANTIMEDIA) Japan —  March 11th marks the five-year anniversary of one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history, which triggered an unprecedented melange of disasters of human and natural causes — including the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986: Fukushima.

Five years ago today, as Popular Mechanics summarized, the “earth moved more than 20 meters over a 500-mile zone and the resulting earthquake released as much energy as a 45-megaton hydrogen bomb (to put this in perspective, this is 30,000 times more powerful as the bomb that leveled Hiroshima). It was the fourth-strongest earthquake recorded since 1900 and the strongest earthquake to strike Japan in recorded history. The quake shifted the Earth’s axis by somewhere between 4 and 10 inches, altering the length of a day by nearly 2 microseconds.”

This release of energy set off an epic tsunami, reaching a height of around 40 meters (140 feet) before making landfall on the Japanese coast, obliterating nearly every building in its path; more than a million buildings were destroyed or damaged. Perched on the coast, of course, was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, whose three functioning reactors, units 1, 2, and 3, were knocked offline by the quake — as they were designed to do — and started operating under power of backup diesel generators.

A seawall, intended to shield the plant from just such a tsunami, proved to be as ineffectual as critics had previously warned. Seawater immediately inundated the emergency generators, knocking out the only source of power keeping necessary cool water circulating over the nuclear fuel rods. Though emergency crews scrambled in the ensuing chaos to find alternative means for cooling the reactors’ cores, it became clear their mission was one of containing the scope of the disaster rather than restoring the plant.

Chemical reactions from the series of events caused pockets of hydrogen to build up in support buildings — and for days after the initial disaster — resulting in a number of explosions that were captured in dramatic video by surveillance aircraft.

Government officials fumbled emergency procedures — by many accounts there were delays and misinformation in abundance immediately following the catastrophe — which arguably placed the health of the population in question. All told, the evacuation eventually comprised an area of 20 km (12 miles) surrounding the crippled nuclear plant.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operated Fukushima, has conducted a notoriously botched cleanup and containment effort ever since. Five years have seen even the attempt to locate the missing fuel — which heated to the point the rods ‘melted’ through their containment vessels —  become a largely fruitless endeavor. In fact, it’s not at all clear where the highly radioactive fuel is located now.

“It is extremely difficult to access the inside of the nuclear plant,” Naohiro Masuda, TEPCO’s head of decommissioning, stated in an interview, Newsweek reported. “The biggest obstacle is the radiation.”

Camera-laden, specialized robots — each taking two years to develop — sent inside the plant to locate the missing fuel have all become incapacitated once radiation interferes with their wiring.

Water must be constantly pumped over the destroyed cores in an effort to keep them cool, but once used for that purpose, it must also be pumped out — and cannot be reused. TEPCO hastily constructed storage tanks to hold this radioactive water waste, and though some improvements have been made to their design since the early days following the calamity, there are reports of constant leaks and seepages — including into the sea.

TEPCO’s effort to contain radioactivity to the site, by manufacturing an underground wall of ice to prevent the inflow of groundwater, has been similarly futile. Though the first stages of the wall were completed in February, critics are concerned both with the amount of time the project has taken and whether it will ultimately pay off.

“The reactors continue to bleed radiation into the groundwater and thence into the Pacific Ocean,” said former nuclear engineer, Artie Gunderson, according to Newsweek. “When Tepco finally stops the groundwater, that will be the end of the beginning.”

Though the suggestion has been made to entomb the plant by encasing radioactive contaminants in a material like concrete — as was the ultimate solution for Chernobyl — officials believe Fukushima’s location next to the Pacific would endanger the environment.

So far, TEPCO and Japanese government officials have been unable to develop a clear plan of action for decommissioning Fukushima. Estimates vary for the length of time needed to effectively carry out the massive project, though they concur it will take decades.

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