Clean-up work continues at the Fukushima nuclear power plant seven years after the meltdown of three reactors.
Clean-up work continues at the Fukushima nuclear power plant seven years after the meltdown of three reactors. Mari Yamaguchi

Radiation leaks at Fukushima pose a global threat

LETHAL levels of radiation have been detected at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant, seven years after its destruction by an earthquake and tsunami.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which is responsible for the plant clean-up, made the discovery in a reactor containment vessel last month.

The energy firm found eight sieverts per hour of radiation, and 42 units were also detected outside its foundations.

A sievert is defined by the International Commission on Radiological Protection as the probability of cancer induction and genetic damage from exposure to a dose of radiation.

One sievert is thought to carry a 5.5 per cent chance of eventually developing cancer.

Experts told Japanese state broadcaster NHK World exposure to that volume of radiation for just an hour could kill, and another warned the leaks could lead to a "global” catastrophe if not tackled properly.

It came as Tepco said the problem of contaminated water - pooled around the plant's three reactors - seeping into the ground had caused a major headache in its efforts to decommission the plant.

Thousands of workers have been hired to secure the plant - the scene of the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

Three of its reactors went into a meltdown after an earthquake and tsunami that killed at least 15,000 people.

Tepco has admitted it could be 2020 before the contamination issue is resolved. Only then can it move onto the second stage of removing nuclear debris at the site, including the damaged reactors.

Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit director Richard Black said the high levels of radiation found in and around the reactor last month were "expected” and unlikely to pose a danger.

"Although the radiation levels identified are high, a threat to human health is very unlikely because, apart from workers at the site, no one goes there,” he said.

"The high readings from fuel debris would be expected - the higher reading from the foundations, if confirmed, would be more of a concern as the cause is at present unclear. But as officials indicate, it might not be a genuine reading anyway.

"What this does demonstrate is that, seven years after the disaster, cleaning up the Fukushima site remains a massive challenge - and one that we're going to be reading about for decades, never mind years.”

But Mycle Schneider, an independent energy consultant and lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, says that Tepco "hasn't a clue what it is doing” in its job to decommission the plant.

He added the contaminated water leaking at the site could end up in the ocean if the ongoing treatment project failed, causing a "global” disaster, he told The Independent.

"Finding high readings in the reactor is normal, it's where the molten fuel is, it would be bizarre if it wasn't,” he said.

"I find it symptomatic of the past seven years, in that they don't know what they're doing, Tepco, these energy companies haven't a clue what they're doing, so to me it's been going wrong from the beginning. It's a disaster of unseen proportions.”

Mr Schneider said the radiation leaks could have global consequences.

"This is an area of the planet that gets hit by tornadoes and all kinds of heavy weather patterns, which is a problem,” he said.

"When you have waste stored above ground in inappropriate ways, it can get washed out and you can get contamination all over the place ... if it contaminates the ocean, there is no local contamination - the ocean is global, so anything that goes into the ocean goes to everyone.”

He added: "It needs to be clear that this problem is not gone, this is not just a local problem. It's a very major thing.”

The Independent contacted Tepco for comment, but the energy giant had not responded at the time of publication.



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