It reads like a doomsday scenario: Radioactive groundwater at Fukushima that has been somewhat trapped deep underground in a massive reservoir is inching ever closer to the Pacific Ocean, set to potentially become the worst contamination event in history. But it is a scenario that is likely to occur, given the ineffectiveness of previous efforts by industry and regulatory agencies to contain harmful contaminants at the plant. To make matters worse, the news of the radioactive groundwater comes hot on the heels of the unnerving reports that still another -- and worse -- leak has occurred in the nuclear wastewater storage containers at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. And although the container leak might be repaired and controlled, experts feel there is little that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) and/or any other agency can do to stop the radioactive water from reaching the Pacific Ocean and contaminating the sea for miles surrounding the nuclear facility.
Leaks, contaminated water, radioactive pollutants -- it is the ongoing horror story of Fukushima and one that continues to cast the nuclear plant's operators, TEPCO, in an increasing poor light.
The Associated Press reported (via Yahoo News) Aug. 23 that the underground radioactive water poses a far greater danger than does the newly discovered leak. Whereas the leak, the fifth thus far discovered since the 2011 catastrophe, from the container measures 300 tons (80,000 gallons), the underground reservoir is of unknown dimensions, but it is believed that the radioactive water has been leaking into the ground since the three reactors melted down.
According to a Japan Atomic Energy Agency document, the radioactive groundwater is spreading toward the sea at a rate of about 4 meters (13 feet) a month.
The plant's power turbines are set 150 meters (492 feet) from the shore.
The situation with the radioactive groundwater has been exacerbated by TEPCO's denials of leaks, a position that the company maintained until last month when it finally admitted -- mostly due to continued pressure from experts that pointed to maintained and/or increased levels of cesium isotopes in the fish population -- that contaminated water was indeed leaking from the Fukushima plant into the surrounding mainland.
Even with the contaminated water pushing ever oceanward, TEPCO continues playing the plausible deniability card, stating that there has been no "convincing data" to suggest leaks from the turbines "But we are open to consider any possible path of contamination."
Two years after the earthquake and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, it might be good to know that the plant's operators are "open to consider" possibilities. But the actuality of the matter is that at least some of the containers (there are 1,000 steel tanks that hold 300,000 tons -- 80 million gallons -- of contaminated water at the nuclear facility) have been leaking through faulty seals. And there is no way to accurately measure the amount of total leakage due TEPCO stonewalling. All that is known is that there have been five admitted leaks.
But a team led by Ken Buesseler, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Mass., noticed that the levels in cesium weren't diminishing over time in the coastal fish population. This suggested that the radioactive contaminants were still being delivered to the area surrounding the plant. Since TEPCO wasn't dumping contaminated water into the Pacific, it was posited that there simply had to be a leak somewhere despite TEPCO's protestations.
"If (the cesium) is in the seafloor, it could be many years or even decades for that to go away," Buesseler told Discovery in December. "That implies we're going to have an issue in coastal fisheries for a long time to come in Japan. We certainly can't say we're out of the woods yet."
At present, local Japanese fisherman aren't allowed to fish in certain areas because fish samples continue to show high levels of cesium.
As for the contaminants becoming part of the world's fish population, it should be noted that fish migrate, sometimes over vast distances. Huffington Post reported in February on a Stanford University study that found bluefin tuna caught off the California coast had elevated levels of radiation stemming from the Fukushima disaster.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government has decided to provide funding and aid TEPCO in its containment efforts to hopefully keep the radioactive groundwater from reaching the Pacific Ocean.