Officials: Pay no attention to that steam rising from Fukushima


Environmental catastrophes seem to have a numbingly familiar story arc, from Louisiana all the way to Japan. From the BP oil spill all the way to the Fukushima nuclear plant, the media goes crazy for 2-3 weeks, and then the story slowly fades as the cameras move on to the next crisis. Typically, though, the problem is far from over, but later manifestations — such as ongoing oil slicks or diseased seafood in the case of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy — are dismissed as no big deal, even though often they are.

More than two years after the nuclear accident that followed the Japan earthquake and tsunami, things are far from back to normal. The latest: Observers have been shocked to see steam rising from one of the damaged reactors, spearking worries of new nuclear reactions at the site of 2011’s meltdown. Officials insist that the problem is under control.

Still, the steam was another indicator of the fragile state of the plant more than two years after the worst nuclear disaster after the accident at Chernobyl. The latest news adds to revelations of a slew of other problems at the plant, including indications that radioactive water may have been leaking into the ocean since the disaster.

The issues have led critics to question the stewardship of Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, which operated Fukushima Daiichi before the triple meltdowns there and is now in charge of its cleanup. Distrust has also run high because of Tepco’s continued tendency to play down or hide problems at the plant.

Tepco said it based its conclusion that there was no new chain reaction at Reactor No. 3 on its failure to find xenon, a byproduct of fission that lingers for only a few hours and would be an indication of new nuclear activity. Tepco also said the temperature remained stable.

Hiroki Kawamata, a spokesman for Tepco, said officials were unsure what was generating the steam and hypothesized that rainwater seeping into the reactor’s damaged containment vessel may have turned to vapor because of heat inside the vessel.

That might be easier to accept if there weren’t so many other problems at Fukushima. As the Times article notes, workers still aren’t able to go near the damaged roof of the reactor because of high levels of radiation in that hot zone. Also, this significant recent development was underreported in the U.S. media:

TOKYO — The stricken nuclear power plant at Fukushima has probably been leaking contaminated water into the ocean for two years, ever since an earthquake and tsunami badly damaged the plant, Japan’s chief nuclear regulator said on Wednesday.

In unusually candid comments, Shunichi Tanaka, the head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, also said that neither his staff nor the plant’s operator knew exactly where the leaks were coming from, or how to stop them.

The operator, Tokyo Electric Power, has reported spikes in the amounts of radioactive cesium, tritium and strontium detected in groundwater at the plant, adding urgency to the task of sealing any leaks. Radioactive cesium and strontium, especially, are known to raise risks of cancer in humans.

Mr. Tanaka’s comments bring into sharp relief the precariousness of the cleanup at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, where core meltdowns occurred at three of the six reactors. A critical problem has been the groundwater that has been pouring into the basements of the damaged reactor buildings and becoming contaminated. Workers have been pumping the water out to be stored in dozens of tanks at the plant, but have not stopped the inflow.

This situation is a horrible tragedy for Japan, but especially for tens of thousands of people who live around the Fukuskima plant and who don’t know now whether it’s safe to return. The site remains a grim reminder of the consequences of not getting it right, of what happens when we ignore such obvious risks as building a large nuclear facility in a tsunami-prone coastal zone. Here at home, there are reports that construction of new offshore oil platforms in the Gulf are booming, even before we have all the answers about what happened with BP, not to mention the long-term fallout. The more we continue to ignore and downplay what’s happening today, the greater the risks we are imposing upon tomorrow.

To read more from the New York Times about steam sighted at Fukushima, please read:

For more information about radioactive rainwater contaminating the ocean, check out:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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