7 years ago (on 11.03.2011), a disaster struck in Japan and the whole world was talking about it. An earthquake with the magnitude of 9.0, followed by a tsunami occurred and it destroyed a part of Fukushima power plant. After the wave, there was a huge explosion, followed by fire and smoke. With the help of wind and water, nuclear waste was transported around the globe. A lot of this highly radioactive material leaked into the Pacific ocean and no one really knew what could happen in the ecosystem.
To see, where the nuclear waste is present, scientists searched for higher concentrations of cesium (Cs) around the globe. When they found higher concentrations of this element, they knew, that this place is contaminated also with the nuclear waste. The element in higher abundance was found on the west coast of the US continent only 10 days after the accident, proving the high mobility and connectedness of the ecosystem.
In order to save as many people’s lives, evacuations began from the affected areas as soon as possible. Unfortunately, there was no way to escape the toxic ashes, that were traveling large distances with the help of the wind. During the accident, only two people died but much more died with delayed mortality. The situation was different with plants and animals that couldn’t escape and many lives were lost. Affected animals were easily spotted. For example, many fish were bleeding from the gills and eyes, and many starfish lost their legs. When such drastic changes occur, especially if organisms known as keystone species or ecosystem engineers are affected, an ecosystem catastrophe can easily follow.
The problem with these highly radioactive places is, that if you spend enough time in such a place, mutations can occur that may lead to various diseases (cancer etc.). However, I need to break your way of thinking right here. Sure, high radioactive dosages are scary and deadly, but the small dosages (up to 2,5 msv/ year) are something we need in order to function normally! How come you ask? Well, not all radiation comes from inside the powerplants. Radiation is normally present as suns rays and to some degree, the Earth’s crust (and the food we eat) is radioactive as well.
There is a place called Ramsar, where the highest naturally measured radiation (250 msv/ year) is measured. Yes, you read that right – it is 100 times higher than the small dosage I was speaking about sooner! It is also a lot higher than the dosage we set as the maximum safety limit (which is 20 msv/ year). And before you start googling, people do live there and even though being exposed to these super high concentrations, they don’t get ill! The not getting ill part is due to their long history of living there and therefore developing adaptations.
Let’s go back to the story of Fukushima, shall we?
So, this power plant is located near the Pacific ocean, that is also used as a cooling system for the powerplant (the usual practice). During the accident, many towers got damaged, which was also the reason for the leaking problems into the ocean. Noone really knows how much waste has escaped, but we know for sure, that the amounts were enormous. In order to try and prevent even more damage being done, they really did do a lot, but unfortunately, even with their best efforts, about 300 tons of nuclear waste still escape on a daily basis! But this is not the only place the waste goes – we could also detect it in the air, soil and underground water.
Before the accident, the lands around the powerplant were used for farming, but they all needed to be abandoned due to the polluted soil. The pollutors and radioactive elements often accumulate in the bodies of organisms (biomagnification process) and are transferred up to the food chain (plants –> herbivores –> carnivores). We have also observed many mutations of the wild plant and animal species. However, it is important to note, that not all organisms can survive the same amount of pollution and radioactivity and that they always do their best to adapt to the new living conditions. The research found that some plant species grow quicked under higher radiation levels and on the other hand, some have huge difficulties with nutrient uptake. The organisms also differ to one another in the amount of the pollutants and radioactive elements they can uptake, before getting ill.
Unfortunately, there are many different problems that occur. On one hand, the unpolluted groundwater is leaking into the reactor (which can lead to shortages of drinking water). When the water gets contaminated it tries to escape to the ocean (or underground). In order to prevent this, a water purifying (or water decontamination ) system was built, that successfully removes the Cs atoms from water. On the other hand, they build many water towers (round things around the powerplant) to store the polluted water and prevent it from leaking into the environment.
Right now, you are probably thinking – well, why don’t they just somehow seal the holes to prevent the water to come in? Let me assure you, you are thinking in the same way they are. They have come up with a great idea (that is, unfortunately, only temporary) where they freeze the soil and in this way prevent the groundwater to come into the reactor. However, they still need to use large amounts of water in order to cool down the damaged reactor and prevent it from overheating and doing even more damage. This water gets contaminated during the process and is pumped directly into the water tanks I mentioned earlier. In order to permanently take care of the problem, the holes in the power plant need to be sealed. In order to do this, they are putting a lot of effort into development of robots, that would be tolerant to high radioactivity, or better said – their electronic system inside of them would be. However, at least for now, this is still work in progress.
Scientists predict that it would take about 40 years for the ecosystem to recover from the accident to the point when it would be safe for the people to return. Although the radioactivity will lose its strength through time, the bad ring to the name of the city will remain much longer (the same happened with Chernobyl).
How do you feel about this accident? Do you feel some tensions when the name Fukushima comes up, or do you already process it as something that happened in the past and does not have any effect whatsoever? Please let me know about your thinking in the comments below, I would be happy to read them!