Fukushima’s Strontium Leaks a Neverending Crisis? (Germanos)

Andrea Germanos writes at Commondreams

courtesy VOAnews

As the disaster at Fukushima plant continues to unfold, one nuclear expert is warning that "this is an accident that’s shockingly not stopping."

Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), sounds particular alarm around radioactive strontium that is being released from the trouble-stricken plant:

Fukushima continues to be an emergency without end – vast amounts of radioactivity, including strontium-90 in the groundwater, evidence of leaks into the sea, the prospect of contaminated seafood. Strontium-90, being a calcium analog, bioaccumulates in the food chain. It is likely to be a seaside nightmare for decades.

Speaking with PBS Newshour this week, the Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free author said that strontium is "much more dangerous" than the cesium 137 and 134 being released from Fukushima, and was found "at levels that are 30 times more than cesium."  He continued:

So to give you an idea of the level of contamination, if somebody drank that water for a year, they would almost certainly get cancer. So it's very contaminated.

So that's one problem. The other is the defenses to hold back this water from the sea seem to be overcome. So now the contaminated waters, 70,000, 80,000 gallons is flowing into the sea every day.

Dr. Makhijani speaking on PBS Newshour this week. (Sreenshot)When asked what happens when this radioactive strontium reaches the sea, Makhijani replied:

Well, when it goes into the sea, of course, some of it will disperse and dilute. Some of it goes into the sediment and some of it is taken up by the life in the sea.

And the unfortunate thing about strontium especially is that it bioaccumulates in algae, it bioaccumulates in fish. It targets the bone, because it's like calcium. And so this is a problem. We don't have measurements far out to sea. The Woods Hole Institute has done some surveys. And they were surprised by how much continuing radioactivity they found, but no clear explanation yet.

But it's not just fish that will take in the radiation.

When Living on Earth asked Makhijani about how the radioactivity could affect human health, he said:

Well, the strontium-90 and the cesium would both be perilous, and since the strontium-90 is more mobile and also more dangerous biologically, strontium behaves like calcium, so it goes to the bone. It also bioaccumulates in the base of the food chain and algae. Ultimately because it does bioaccumulate and there is quite a lot of strontium, you could have a large part of the food chain near Fukushima being contaminated.

If pregnant women eat the contaminated fish or drink the contaminated water, he said

the outcomes could be worse than cancer because then you’re talking about a much more compromised child in the sense of having a compromised immune system – it makes you more vulnerable to all kinds of diseases.

Just how TEPCO or other authorities will be able to deal with this "radioactivity that’s essentially forever" is uncertain, he continued.

It’s very, very unclear to me how they are going to be able to get at this molten fuel, extract it from the bottoms of these highly damaged buildings and package it for safer or less dangerous storage or disposal.

"This is an accident that’s shockingly not stopping," he warned.

There is one certainty among the many unknowns, writes long-time anti-nuke activist Harvey Wasserman:

[W]hat we now know all too well at Fukushima is that the world's worst atomic catastrophe is very far from over.

The only thing predictable is that worse news will come.

And when it does, our increasingly fragile planet will be further irradiated, at immeasurable cost to us all.

* * *

Watch the PBS Newshour discussion between Makhijani, Kenji Kushida of Stanford University and host Jeffrey Brown below:

Watch Fukushima Reinforces Worst Fears for Japanese on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.


4 Responses

  1. To point to a bright side of very, very bad news, this will help to drive the dagger through the heart of the vampire which is the world wide atomic energy industry. It desperately needs this problem solved so that the public is not continuously reminded of just how unsafe nuclear power is. But this is a story that’s not going away, because the geniuses that brought us nuclear power don’t know how to fix this problem. Will wonders never cease. Another good example of what happens when you trust people with too much power and money and not enough accountability or transparency. I just hope we’re learning it.

  2. The half-life of Sr90 is 29 years, so not quite “forever.” What didn’t make the news was the details of what the source of the strontium was, how much there was (and how much of that was at risk and/or likely to escape), how concentrated, etc. The shorthand of “if you drink that water for a year” you’ll almost certainly get cancer, is helpful, if sketchy. Of course, no one’s going to drink “that water” for a year. But the bioaccumulation is certainly a concern. To the extent that it goes into sea sediment, that sounds like a good thing. Let it cool off and kick off its electrons for a century or two, and that’s that.

  3. When the release was at its highest, between March and June 2011, the nuclear accident led to a release into the sea of between 90 and 900 Tbq of Sr-90. This increased the inventory of the oceans of this radionucleide by a mere percent. (Nuclear weapons testing has been calculated to have added some 116,000 Tbq of Sr-90 to the sea.)
    link to sciencedaily.com

    Continuing releases from Fukushima groundwater and leaks adds a fraction of the initial release, and this means that (unsustainable) fishing practices will go on, as the fish will be insufficiently contaminated to cross any limits. The fish would have been better off with some significant contamination.

    So, the cost to us all will be almost non-existent. And the release isn’t “essentially forever”. The half-life of strontium is like that of cesium, some 30 years. Three hundred years will see 10 halvings, and since 2^10 = 1024, this will cut the inventory to a thousandth. Of course, sedimentation will take a lot out of the environment too.

    We should go back to worrying about coal. Even a triple reactor meltdown, some 26 years after Chernobyl, didn’t cause as much harm as a week of global coal combustion does.

  4. Nice of them to come back to the story, after pointedly NOT talking about it (like all the news outlets for the last two years). As if this leak hasn’t been occurring every day since 3/11

    Dilution does not cure radioactivity, it spreads things with half lives of decades to more places, and in the case of plutonium, diluting tons that were blown into the air with unit 3’s ‘cold shutdown’, it just spreads the lethal doses of one billionth (with a B) or a gram. That is not a guess, one billionth of a gram will kill you if you uptake it. Like breath it, or eat a tuna that hasn’t died yet, or any other way.

    And all this country does is quietly kill the rad-net, and raise the ‘permissible’ levels of radiation. We, as a planet are in new territory here, and along with our other environmental madness, will reap the whirlwind. But, hey. What do I know. If it was more than ‘no immediate health risk’ they would tell us, right? Right?

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