Radioactivity of Fukushima groundwater 30 times higher than safety limits

With reports coming out of radiation levels in the groundwater near the Fukushima Daiichi power plant being 30 times greater than the safety limit, and with all but two of Japan's 50 nuclear reactors offline since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, it seems that the world needs to get real about the safety of nuclear power.

According to CBC News, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the company that runs both the Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini power plants, found that the groundwater in the area around Fukushima Daiichi contains 30 times the safe limit of a radioactive substance called 'strontium-90'. Strontium-90 is one of the radioactive byproducts left over from fission reactions of uranium and plutonium, so it's found in nuclear waste from power plants and it's produced in nuclear explosions as well. If people are exposed to strontium-90, such as through drinking contaminated water, it's been found that most of it just passes through their system, but any amount of this 'bone-seeker' that remains in the body will latch on to the bones and get into the bone marrow, possibly causing various kinds of cancer, including leukemia.

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This announcement came at the same time that Japan released a new set of requirements that reactors in the country need to meet before they can be restarted. Only two of the country's nuclear reactors, both at the Ōi Nuclear Power Plant, are currently operating. Of the other 48 reactors, the six at the Fukushima Daiichi plant (where the toxic levels of strontium-90 were found) will never be reactivated, the four at the Fukushima Daini plant (which also suffered a cold shutdown during the disaster) may be restored, and the rest have been taken offline for safety inspections, either as a result of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, or due to other concerns. Officials have even discovered active earthquake fault-lines under some, raising questions about whether they'll ever be safe to restart.

When built on solid ground and operated safely, the idea is that nuclear power plants are a safe, clean alternative to fossil fuels. However, as the disaster at Fukushima shows us, there are some things that either can't be anticipated, or that seem fairly improbable, until they actually happen.

So, should we be abandoning nuclear power as dangerously unsafe?

Switching everything back to coal and other fossil fuels would be disastrous, not only from a climate-change perspective, but also for the quality of the air we breathe. There's other renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, tidal and geothermal, but there are ways of pursuing nuclear energy that are far safer than what we have in operation now.

Back in September, studies out of China showed that Canada's CANDU reactor was the perfect nuclear reactor for using thorium fuel — a much safer and greener alternative to uranium and plutonium. With our CANDU design at the centre of this potential shift, Canada could become a leader in clean nuclear energy. Thorium was considered as a fuel source back at the beginning of nuclear power, but as it doesn't produce byproducts that can be used in nuclear weapons (like uranium does), the idea was abandoned.

However, if we want to move forward instead of moving back... even more recently, a young man named Taylor Wilson showed off his new design for a nuclear reactor, which would provide more energy than current designs, while doing it cheaper, safer and also using up the dangerous stockpiles of radioactive material left over from dismantled nuclear weapons. His design also produces far less nuclear waste, as the fuel rods are replaced every 30 years, compared to every 18 months for other types of reactors). Of course, there's still the worry about earthquakes and tsunamis and other natural disasters that may damage a nuclear reactor, but because of Wilson's innovative design, his reactor can be buried underground, reducing the chance of contamination from an accident.

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With Japan having most of their nuclear reactors shut down for more than two years now, thus having to import more natural gas, coal and oil for its other power plants to compensate, it's added a huge economic burden to the Japanese people. With new rules for restarting the country's reactors now in place, but continued uncertainties about the safety at many of them, perhaps it's time for Japan to consider an alternative, and to get on the phone with Taylor Wilson.

(Photo courtesy: Kyodo/Reuters)

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