By Francesco Turso
On March 11, Japan was hit by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, which caused a tsunami that devastated towns already crippled by the quake. The latest police reports estimate the death toll at 12,468, while 15,091 people still remain missing.
According to Angola Press, there are still about 160,000 people from the provinces of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, in more that two thousand temporary shelters. Japan and United States just completed a major three-day operation in search of bodies. However, despite having the support of 120 aircraft and helicopters and more that 60 vessels, the search only found 78 bodies from the rubble and coastal waters. It is believed that most of the missing people have been swept out to sea.
167,700 households in the north of the country are still without electricity, and at least 200,000 households are still without water. MICEBTN.com reports that 45,700 buildings have been destroyed and the damage from the earthquake and tsunami is estimated between 16-25 trillion Yen (200-300 billion dollars).
The Nuclear Crisis
The Tsunami and earthquake also caused major problems with the nuclear plant in Fukushima. Government spokesman Yukio Edano has confirmed that the reactor and surrounding metal housing remain intact. Iodine tablets are being distributed as a precaution against radiation poisoning. As stated by Voice of America, pressure in the reactor built to dangerous levels following the earthquake, which has increased the risk of radiation release.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan has recognized the severity of the situation, but Kan and other government officials have also stressed that the reactor is undamaged and no citizens have been affected by radiation. A 20km evacuation zone has been established around that particular reactor, yet Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a nuclear engineer who helped design the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, called for a 30 km evacuation zone due to the detection of cesium outside the reactor. 136,000 people within a zone extending a further 10 kilometers have been recommended to either leave the area or stay indoors, according to MICEBTN.com.
After three hydrogen explosions at the plant, a leak was found to be spewing radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. The leak has since been fixed, but new concerns about safety have risen. A new confidential assessment by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, obtained by the New York Times, warn against complacency at the damaged plant.
The report states that fragments of dangerous nuclear fuel were blown out of the reactors “up to one mile from the units,” and were simply bulldozed over to protect workers on site. Nearly 11,500 tons of radioactive sea water is slowly diluting in the Pacific Ocean, this has many people worried about how this will impact the ocean and food supply.
The Los Angeles Times recently stated that the radiation levels in seawater near the plant have dropped dramatically, even before engineers plugged the leak. Authorities expect levels to continue falling now that the contaminated water has diminished. Radioactive iodine levels had reached 7.5 million times permissible levels by April 2, however new tests conducted on April 5 have found levels only at 4 percent of the original readings. At 300,000 times the permissible amount, the levels are not safe but they are continuing to decline as the radioactive water dissipates in the ocean.
Food Supply Impact
Ken Buesseler, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, believes the situation is not as bad as people imagined. He told ABC, “Eating fish from those offshore sites at concentration factors that people have seen before, over the course of a year for an average citizen might give you a dose equivalent to a CAT scan or something, that’s significant, it’s not trivial. But it would not be life threatening.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it will require seafood that comes from Japan to go through strict radiation checks, before it enters the food supply. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, questioned the ability of the FDA to run the necessary tests in an interview with ABC.
“I think the concern is, the FDA doesn’t have the resources to properly screen and then do laboratory tests. In the best of times, they only test less than 2 percent of seafood that comes from imports,” said Hauter. So far, the FDA has stated that every piece of imported seafood is completely safe.
Consequences of Radioactive Fallout
Wolfgang Weiss, Chairman of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, placed the Fukushima disaster somewhere in between the 1979 Three Mile Island partial meltdown and the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown. “It is in between, in terms of environmental effects, not in terms of health impact,” Weiss told ABC, “From what I have seen now, from the information I have now, I would not expect anything…serious,” except for the effects on the workers at the plant.
Traces of radiation have been reported in Washington and Ohio. The Environmental Protection Agency has posted information on radiation levels found in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The levels varied between 13.4 and 18.3 picocuries per liter, similar to levels found in Alabama and Georgia, but lower than samples from Washington and Idaho.
Owen Hoffman, a scientist from Oak Ridge and expert in assessing radiation risk, told the Knoxville News Sentinel that local levels are still about five times lower than what was measured in 1986, after the Chernobyl disaster.