Frequently Asked Questions
1. What types of contaminants are leaking from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP)?
This event has been documented as the single largest contribution of radionuclides to the marine environment ever observed, according to the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety. There are many different types of radionuclide atoms flowing into the Pacific, however measurements to date have been focused on cesium and strontium molecules. The Government is clear in stating that 300 tons (71, 895 gallons/272, 152 liters) of contaminated water is flowing into the ocean each day - that’s enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every eight days.
The spill left behind two radioactive isotopes of cesium: Cs-134 (half-life of 2 years) and Cs-137 (half-life of 30 years). Cs-134 is only generated by human activities and therefore was not present in the Pacific Ocean prior to the earthquake and tsunami decimating the Japanese plant.
Reports of Strontium (Sr-90) are also being detected in the ocean. This is of a slightly greater concern as it is taken up and concentrated in bones where it can remain for a longer period of time. This is significant for smaller fish such as sardines which are usually consumed whole, so require careful monitoring as the situation unfolds.
2. How long has the plant been leaking contaminated water?
Contaminated water has been leaking at various rates, and via different pathways since the disaster occurred in March 2011. One of the continual sources of contamination, and major problems facing TEPCO, is due to the plant being located within the mountainside and subsequent penetration of groundwater from the surroundings. The water comes into contact with the damaged reactors and becomes contaminated with radionuclides.
3. How does the contaminated water reach the ocean?
Experts believe the leaks are primarily the result of groundwater flowing into the aquifer below the plant on its natural route to the ocean. In a report produced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) it states “the accumulation of enormous amounts of liquids due to the continuous intrusion of underground water into reactor and turbine buildings is influencing the stability of the situation”, so retaining this water is a primary step in preventing further contamination of the ocean and surrounding environment.
In addition to this, a few of the tanks that are holding the contaminated water are leaking. This increases radioactive discharge to groundwater supply and subsequently the ocean. Models produced by oceanographers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) predict radioactive particles disperse through the oceans at variable depths and it may take up to 5 years since the disaster began for contaminated seawater to reach the western coast of the U.S.
4. Why is the plant continuing to leak and what is being done to stop it?
The plant continues to leak as TEPCO, the plant operator, together with the Japanese government struggle to find the expertise and finances needed to mitigate the situation. As of yet none of the solutions have been a resounding success nor have they been regarded as long-term solutions. Storage tanks containing contaminated water are exacerbating problems as they are being overfilled, with some lacking the structural integrity to retain the water. The plant itself is leaking 0.3 terabecquerels of C-134 and a similar volume of C-137 a month.
The current solution to groundwater intrusion is the implementation of an ‘ice-wall’ using refrigerants to freeze the soil down to 90ft. It is hoped this will prevent the flow of groundwater into the contamination zone, but is the first time this technology will be used on such a scale and under these circumstances.
5. What are the main health concerns associated with the ongoing leak?
The National Academy of Sciences provides comprehensive risk estimates for cancer and other health effects caused by low-level ionizing radiation and state that risk is proportional to dosage. Individuals living in and around the nuclear power plant site will be more vulnerable to radiative health effects than those located further from the site. There has been increased concern over the health of workers who are helping with onsite clean-up; the Japanese government have implemented fairly conservative annual radiation limits of 250 millisieverts. But despite precautions being taken, there are still accidents occurring frequently at the plant causing more spills and putting workers at greater risk. The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concerns that the incident may result in “somewhat elevated” lifetime cancer rates among local populations.
6. What is the state of fisheries off the coast of Japan and along the West coast of the U.S?
Research suggests that the marine environment directly adjacent to the coast of the damaged power plant is most affected by radiation. Studies showed 20% of fish samples tested were demonstrating levels of radiation above Japanese limits, specifically demersal (bottom-dwelling) fish, therefore fishing in this area is currently prohibited and the U.S. has banned imports from affected prefectures.
Studies conducted by Stanford University off the coast of San Diego on Pacific Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus orientalis)found each sample to be contaminated with radioactive cesium, although the amount detected was below regulatory limit, the National Academy of Science still suggests that even a low dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.
This disaster has flagged an important issue regarding the safety of our seafood and the transparency of data relevant to the foods we consume. As individuals we should be focused on applying this to a broader spectrum of seafood security, making more conscious decisions about our purchases based on sustainable fishing methods. Greenpeace has been working to safeguard supermarket shelves from destructive fishing practices which jeopardize our marine resources. Find out where your local supermarket ranks here.
7. Is the U.S. government testing Pacific Ocean seafood and other food products?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is continually monitoring both domestic and imported products for radiation as it has done since the disaster occurred. The FDA has currently banned agricultural and fishery imports from 14 prefectures around Japan. Data is gathered from scientific reports as well as liaising with other government organizations within the U.S. and internationally. Whole shipping containers arriving to U.S. shores are screened by Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
8. Is debris washing ashore contaminated and should I be concerned if I find some?
If you find typical marine debris such as plastic bottles, styrofoam, cans, or buoys, you are encouraged to remove and recycle it. Up to 80% of typical marine debris is plastic, which threatens the marine environment. Species of fish, turtles, marine birds etc. are particularly susceptible, mistaking it for food and ingesting it. It is difficult to determine the origin of much of the debris found upon our coastlines, if you suspect you have found items directly related to the tsunami you can report it to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) via email: , detailing the location, date and time, photos and any other relevant descriptions. For larger or potentially dangerous debris you should contact local authorities and State Environmental Health Department.
Although this is a high profile case of marine debris, in reality a tsunami’s worth of marine debris enters our oceans every year through land-base sources. We can help mitigate this situation by reducing use of one-time items such as disposable bottles, cups and straws and recycling as much as possible. You can also participate in beach clean ups or organize one of your own. More information about marine debris in general and ways you can care for your local beach can be found here.
9. Is the Pacific Ocean off the West coast of the U.S. safe for recreational use?
Beaches in Japan’s Ibaraki prefecture located to the south of the plant have been re-opened for recreational use. U.S. Government data shows no contamination within the water or sand off the West coast. Greenpeace does not have the data to state otherwise, but this is obviously an issue that should be closely monitored as clean-up efforts continue.
10. What can we learn from the Fukushima event?
While the long-term damage and full extent of the Fukushima disaster remains uncertain, it is clear that sticking to our current reliance on nuclear energy is not environmentally or economically sustainable. Billions of dollars have already been spent in clean-up efforts and compensation. We should see this as an opportunity to phase out our dependence on older nuclear technology and move the nation to a safer energy future. Greenpeace believes this is possible and you can help in our fight by sending your message to the President opposing the creation of new nuclear plants here.