While so many eyes are focused on celebrities with varying degrees of talent (and Syria to a lesser extent), a real-life nuclear disaster of unknown proportions is playing out in Japan. Toxic, radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continues to leak into the ground and into the Pacific Ocean two and a half years after the plant experienced a disaster outranked only by Chernobyl in terms of outright devastation.
On March 11, 2011, the deadly Tōhoku earthquake and resulting tsunami caused a meltdown and leakage of radioactive material. During the earthquake, the facility lost power, and back-up generators were soon disabled by flooding. This meant that the pumps used to continuously pump water to cool the nuclear reactors were inoperable. The reactors became too hot without the coolant and a meltdown occurred, releasing radioactive material.
The Japanese government found that the operators of the plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), were at fault and that this disaster could have been prevented. This is why it seems so strange that the government placed TEPCO in charge of cleaning up the mess, though they did put an advisory organization in place to oversee cleanup. That seems like the equivalent of a bomb squad sitting back and watching the Unabomber neutralize his own bomb.
Finally, in light of new information about the severity and increasing frequency of the leaks and resulting contamination, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has spoken out against TEPCO, saying it is incapable of handling the situation properly. Not only is TEPCO’s ability in question, its credibility is as well. Radioactivity readings of the ocean water surrounding the plant provided by the company were inept at best, and devious cover-ups at worst.
The company claimed that the water was measuring at 100 millisieverts (a sievert being the unit used to measure doses of radiation), which is a nonlethal dose of radiation. But it turns out that they were getting these readings on an instrument only capable of measuring up to 100 millisieverts — how convenient. After tests were performed with proper instruments, it was determined that the radiation was closer to 1,800 millisieverts, which is not necessarily lethal, but most certainly toxic.
But despite the introduction of actual readings (what a novel idea), the leaks continue and TEPCO is not preventing them. Trade and Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said, “Tokyo Electric has been playing a game of whack-a-mole with problems at the site.” Contaminated water used to cool down the reactors has possibly been leaking for over two years, sometimes at the rate of 300 tons per day. Officials say the radiation is spreading, especially around makeshift tanks that were introduced during the cleanup process and have been known to leak in the past.
On Tuesday, PM Abe stated that in light of the recent injection of terrifying information into the public consciousness, the Japanese government has pledged $470 million to the problem. They plan to freeze the earth around the tanks in order to stop seepage into the ground. It will be put in place within six to eight weeks.
If this does stop the leakage, it does not correct the damage that has been done over the past two and a half years. It is certainly something that could have implications for not just Japan, but the entire world. But how severe and widespread will they be? Well, don’t believe everything you hear; and don’t believe anything you hear from TEPCO.
There was a very scary-looking image released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration right after the earthquake. It showed a color-coded map of the world marking wave height caused by the earthquake in the same way meteorologists show intensity of storms on radar. In this graphic, the entire Pacific is shown alight with activity. This has since been misunderstood as a map of nuclear fallout from Fukushima, which made it appear that the entire Pacific Ocean was contaminated.
Understandably, many who saw this were concerned. Even though radioactivity from the fallout at Fukushima has been found all the way in California, and it definitely has to have some negative effect on the rest of the world, it is not as widespread as the misinterpreted graphic made it appear. And this graphic has been recirculated lately, once again misunderstood as a map of contamination. As hard as it is to believe (especially with TEPCO’s less-than-stellar reputation for transparency), there have been no reported deaths associated with this disaster. But that shouldn’t quell the feeling of anger and disgust that one should feel about their planet is contaminated on a massive scale.
TEPCO and the Japanese government can and should be blamed, but isn’t the increased need for nuclear energy just a side effect of the ever-growing, technologically fast-paced world of today? This disaster is a reality check for the people of the world concerning energy consumption. I don’t even know if it’s possible for the world to exist as it does without nuclear energy. And are the other options like coal and natural gas (numbers one and two ahead of nuclear energy in the U.S.) any better for our world?
The human race and our planet are both quite resilient. But this resilience seems to have led us to push the limits as far as they can go. I’m sure it is quite naive and simplistic, but it would be better if the world would get serious about allocating time and resources to limiting our energy consumption and increase efforts to develop minimally harmful sources of energy. That’s not a radical or new idea; it’s just one that will never happen in the foreseeable future. But just keep in mind that Fukushima is the alternative, and the scary thing is that it probably isn’t even the worst side effect of the way society harnesses energy.