Preparedness & Recovery

Pacific Northwest Experts Aid Japan after Nuclear Disaster

Scientists from the two labs have been advising officials in Japan about how to clean the area because it has many similarities to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation about 20 or 25 years ago.

by Sue Vorenberg, McClatchy News / March 17, 2014
A large ferry boat rests inland amidst destroyed houses after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Garry Welch

Mikey Brady Raap remembers an eerie scene when she first toured the site of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

As a chief engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, she was called in to help assess the situation with others from PNNL and Savannah River National Laboratory about a year after the partial meltdown.

"We walked the site, looked at the damage," Raap said. "We walked into the building around the fuel pool. The building stairs were gone. It's amazing how much damage the earthquake did, and the tsunami."

The Damage

Three years ago last week, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami it created killed about 19,000 people in the region and damaged much of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Three of the six reactors at the Daiichi plant exploded at various times from March 12-15, triggering the meltdown and radiation release.

The plant has stabilized a lot since then, but many problems remain.

Structural issues and radioactive water leaks still plague those trying to clean the site.

The immediate area around the city of Fukushima and the nuclear plant remains in bad shape. Some of that land will have to be abandoned for decades, if not permanently.

And because of the radiation, almost 60,000 people still can't return home. Some will never be able to. Some have committed suicide from the stress.

"When we went there, everything seemed to just be standing still," Raap said. "There were hundreds and hundreds of people walking around, all suited up in protective gear."

In town, abandoned shops still had mannequins fully dressed, grocery shelves were stocked — nothing was looted, just left when it was quickly abandoned, she said.

Scientists from the two labs have been advising officials in Japan about how to clean the area because it has many similarities to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation about 20 or 25 years ago.

And officials from the power company and the Japanese government have also visited Hanford and PNNL several times to learn more, said Mary Peterson, a scientist at the lab.

"We ended up hosting I don't know how many different delegations," Peterson said. "A lot of it was an education process. A lot of them were familiar with operating a nuclear plant, and then they had to move into remediation. They were hoping it was as simple as buying a solution, but that's not how it works."

Key steps in the process, which will take many years to complete, have been to stabilize the nuclear plant, stop contaminants from spreading and clean up the landscape. The reactor will also be decommissioned in a process that could take 40 years.

The Cleanup

So far, those cleaning the site have installed a new sea wall to keep tainted water from spreading into the ocean. They've also built pump-and-treat facilities to remove contaminants from water before it's released. Some of those efforts have been slowed, though, because the Japanese government is reorganizing its nuclear regulatory agency.

For now, a lot of the water that may be suitable to reinsert into the ground is sitting in barrels that are quickly stacking up at the site, Raap said.

"The regulatory situation in Japan has been very dynamic since the accident," Raap said. "They've completely reconstructed it."

Another step in the process, one that's underway, is installing an ice barrier to prevent ground water that flows from the mountains to the ocean from entering contaminated areas beneath the site.

The ice barrier isn't a big above-ground wall defended by the Night's Watch, as might come to mind for "Game of Thrones" fans.

"They freeze the ground," Raap said. "They drill in, pump liquid nitrogen in and basically freeze a thick wall below ground so water can't flow through."

Officials are also interested in using a barrier made of the mineral apatite, which absorbs radioactive materials and metals. A similar barrier protects the Columbia River from groundwater contaminants at the Hanford site, Raap said.

Back in North America

As far as contamination beyond the immediate region, there really isn't that much.

"There's more than a dozen monitoring stations off the shore from Fukushima, and for the most part when you get past 30 miles, the (Cesium) levels are undetectable," Raap said.

The biggest danger to the United States was right after the event, when an airborne plume of material including xenon 133 spread to the West Coast. The lab detected that on March 16, 2011, but not in levels that were significantly dangerous to human health.

"We were the first to actually detect the radiation in the United States," Peterson said.

That threat lasted only a few days, and the material has long since decayed, Raap said.

"There's no risk from radiation that's there now," Raap said.

That hasn't stopped rumors from spreading on the Internet about contamination in the Pacific Ocean destroying fish and beaches along the U.S. West Coast, though. Many people remain afraid to eat fish from the Pacific, despite assurances that they're safe.

"You see a lot of strange tales," Raap said. "They usually are centered around 'someone is not telling the truth about dose rates' or 'people are hiding the truth,' but the (International Atomic Energy Association and other international groups) have all published their findings."

According to a March 2014 update from the Food and Drug Administration: "To date, FDA has no evidence that radionuclides from the Fukushima incident are present in the U.S. food supply at levels that would pose a public health concern. This is true for both FDA-regulated food products imported from Japan and U.S. domestic food products, including seafood caught off the coast of the United States."

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency tested food imported to Canada from Japan from September to October 2012 and found almost everything was below detectable levels. Some processed foods from Japan had levels of Cesium 137 in trace amounts of 4 to 80 becquerel per kilogram and Cesium 134 from 13 to 48 Bq/Kg.

Those levels are much lower than the country's food safety boundary of 1,000 Bq/Kg. That becquerel per kilogram level means that for one kilogram of material, 1,000 atoms will decay per second.

Still, there's no real way to stop misinformation from spreading, or to keep people from believing it if they want to.

Rumors on the Web

According to one 2012 story from Montreal-based (which before the three-year anniversary came up fourth in a Google search for "Fukushima"): "Japan as a nation state has been destroyed. Its landmass and territorial waters are contaminated. Part of the country is uninhabitable. High levels of radiation have been recorded in the Tokyo metropolitan area, which has a population of 39 million. ... There are indications that the food chain is contaminated throughout Japan."

Geoff Harvey, a spokesman for PNNL, said he's seen quite a few equally odd tales out there, as well.

"I saw one where a woman predicted that by the end of 2015 all fish on the Pacific coast would be destroyed," Harvey said. "She was appalled and said the U.S. and Canada had turned off all their monitoring sites."

That caused a laugh from Raap.

"I'd be appalled if they did that, too," she said.

Some cesium has been found in fish across the Pacific Ocean in very low doses that are not a danger to human health. It's hard to tell if that radiation is from Fukushima or from the spectrum of materials left over after nuclear testing that continued from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Some people are scared of anything that goes with the word "radiation," but actually there are lots of things around us every day that are radioactive.

Bananas, cocoa powder and Brazil nuts all have potassium 40 in them — and shipments occasionally set off radiation monitors on the border with Canada. Granite, kitty litter and pottery items like toilet tanks have detectable amounts of uranium and thorium. Camping lanterns also sometimes contain thorium, and propane has radium 226.

"That's why I think education is really important," Raap said. "If the worst you'd get was two bananas (worth of radiation dose from the air plume in 2011) is it really worth taking something like potassium iodide, which has its own health risks?"

And if you think some of those items are strange, people are also radioactive, she said.

"You get some dose, actually, from sleeping with someone, about half a banana's worth," Raap said. "Living next to a power plant for a year is almost a banana. An airplane flight from New York to Los Angeles in 400 bananas."

That's not to make light of the real concerns, she said, but the rumors that are spreading aren't doing anybody any good.

And it will probably get worse when the new "Godzilla" movie comes out on May 16, she added.

"It's going to be tied in to Fukushima, from what I've read, but I really wouldn't use a movie as a source of information," Raap said.

(c)2014 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)