Since the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami of March 11, 2011 struck Japan, the destroyed nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi has been a cause for worldwide concern. Being only the second nuclear incident to rank a seven on the international nuclear events scale, matched only by the now-infamous Chernobyl meltdown, the lasting effects of this tragedy are not easily quantified.
As a result, fears continue to mount over meltdowns, radiation clouds, contaminated food and water sources and the entire future of nuclear energy. With videos of Geiger counters reading extremely dangerous levels at California beaches, stories of fish containing radioactive materials and the tragic fate of the USS Ronald Reagan’s crew — a crew now plagued by leukemia and radiation poisoning as a result of its proximity to the 2011 disaster — it is impossible to avoid seeing and feeling the effects of this tragedy, even here in sunny Santa Barbara.
Although the United States was not initially exposed to the radiation of the Fukushima fallout, there are concerns that the ocean’s tides and food chain may be carrying this radiation much farther than the air itself could do. Recently, there has been a great deal of concern surrounding the potential consequences of this kind of radiation: Is our seafood still safe to eat? Is the Pacific Ocean still swimmable? How far could the radiation reach if it is actually a part of the Pacific’s ecosystem?
The answers to these questions are not easily ascertained. Seafood may be as healthy as ever or it might deliver a dangerous dose of Caesium-137 with each bite. The radiation that has been measured at California beaches may be an anomaly or we may have to come to terms with the possibility that skin cancer is no longer the biggest danger of laying out in the sand.
Fearing that exploring these questions further could lead to the destruction of the fishing industry of the Pacific Ocean, it is a difficult topic for any official government agency to address and, thus, the uncertainty remains. However, what we do know is that there are hundreds of thousands of fuel rods stored in the three melted reactor cores at Fukushima, a great number of which are still in a highly unstable state.
In order to keep reactors from melting down, the official plan has been to use enormous amounts of water to continuously cool and stabilize the fuel rods. But what happens to this water after it has been circulated around these radioactive rods?
Thus far, 330,000 tons of contaminated water — a number which is said to be growing by 400 tons per day — has been stored in a large system of tanks which do not appear to be successfully keeping this water out of the environment. There have been many incidences of leakage and faulty repairs on these water storage tanks that may have caused large amounts of this water to seep into the ground and ocean near Fukushima.
Not only is there concern over the water that is already stored in these tanks, but also over how to accommodate future needs for water storage and isolation. Once again, there are not many feasible solutions on the horizon.
Currently, the plan at Fukushima is to slowly remove the fuel rod assemblies, one at a time, using a highly advanced crane to remove each assembly and place it upon a rack for transport. If this system were to be put into effect immediately and operated for 24 hours a day, every day, one of the four decommissioned reactors would be expected to be emptied this year. Even the most optimistic of estimates do not foresee this project and the subsequent cleanup to be completed before 2020.
Being an ocean-side community, Santa Barbara needs to be concerned with the handling of the Fukushima tragedy. Whether or not the Pacific is already contaminated with radiation, Santa Barbara needs to start paying attention to how the aftermath of the crisis at Fukushima is being handled because it will absolutely affect our future, one way or another.
If we want to keep our community safe from the effects of this tragedy, we need to remind the world that we are watching and paying attention and that we will not simply stand by as our world deteriorates. Think something, write something, say something or do something, just don’t ignore the fact that one day, safely surfing or even walking the beach at UCSB may be nothing but a bittersweet memory.
Emile Nelson is the Nexus’ Opinion Co-Editor.