Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fukushima Cleanup Faces Steep Hurdles

Just two weeks ago off the coast of Japan’s eastern region, another earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit the home to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant amidst a nuclear cleanup effort. Although no damage was reported from this tsunami, the news underscores fears that the risks of the cleanup effort—both foreseeable and unpredictable—threaten the nuclear power plant’s safe removal of nuclear rods, disposal of contaminated water and decommissioning. It seems that the delicate cleanup effort is far from over.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant was first hit in March 2011 by an earthquake and subsequent 13-meter-tall tsunami, causing equipment failures that compromised the flow of coolant to the plant’s nuclear reactors. Later efforts to supply the plant with power in order to generate the continuous flow
Fukushima evacuation measures
of coolant failed, releasing toxic radiation into the Pacific Ocean and the surrounding areas. These events constitute the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, as current radiation levels reach up to 30% of those of Chernobyl and left 18,000 people dead or missing.

Last month, unexpectedly heavy rains hit the eastern coast of Japan, resulting in serious environmental and health impacts and the evacuation of roughly 300,000 people from the area. Excess rainfall caused tons of contaminated water from the plant’s cooling system to overflow into the Pacific Ocean. While the full extent of the damage is not yet known, the initial meltdowns in 2011 followed by a string of incidents leading up to the toxic spill have ignited fresh concerns over Japan’s nuclear future and the clean-up plan for Fukushima.

Today, the painstaking cleanup is underway, which officials say could take up to a year to complete. Many fear that the uranium rods and storage pools housing the rods are damaged. One of the reactors, Unit 3, is still off-limits due to the extremely high levels of radiation. Entrance into the complex is seen as a suicide mission.

Although much of the news surrounding the Fukushima nuclear disaster focuses on the damage to the plant and the health implications of radiation poisoning, there are a few other concerning factors. Tons of tainted water from the cooling tanks have already spilled into the Pacific Ocean, igniting fears that the radioactivity is contaminating fish in Fukushima prefecture and could spread to surrounding countries. The hysteria has led many to believe that the radiation will spread to the United States’ west coast, forcing a mass evacuation, although that has been disputed by the International Pacific research Center in Hawaii.

Overall, the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster is far from over. It will be years before locals can move back into their homes (if ever). Contaminated water spills carry the risk of harming both human and animal populations alike, and the cleanup effort is mired in uncertainty due to environmental factors (earthquakes, heavy rainfall) and the inherent challenges in disposing of radioactive substances. Although the full effects of the radiation will not be know for years, we can only hope that the cleanup effort is executed in a way that minimizes these long-term risks.

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