A recently released study indicates uranium and other solid radioactive micro-particles were among the dangerous materials that contaminated the environment following the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima.
Previous reports suggested that only volatile radioactive gases such as caesium and iodine had caused contamination following the multiple reactor meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which were triggered by massive earthquakes and tsunami on March 11, 2011 and led to the evacuation of some 160,000 residents.
The new study, which is a collaborative investigation by a team of international scientists, claims that additionally the likes of uranium and technetium were among the contaminants found in soil samples inside the nuclear exclusion zone that was set up following the disaster.
“Our research strongly suggests there is a need for further detailed investigation on Fukushima fuel debris, inside, and potentially outside the nuclear exclusion zone,” said Dr. Gareth Law, a lecturer in analytical radiochemistry at the University of Manchester and one of the authors of the report.
Uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years and can be lethal. Exposure to high doses can result in kidney failure and death once it enters the blood stream. It can also irreparably damage the immune system, as was the case during the 1999 nuclear disaster at a uranium reprocessing facility in Tokai, Japan, where two workers died and many more fell sick following an illegally conducted preparation of nuclear fuel using enriched uranium.
It can also lead to cancers, according to a website produced by Argonne National Laboratory for the US Department of Energy.
According to the new study on uranium and other deposits in Fukushima, nano fragments found in soil samples collected from paddy fields up to 4 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant provide proof that uranium was among the materials released during the disaster. The particles that would have been released from the Fukushima reactors would be a fraction of the width of a human hair, meaning they could easily have been inhaled by residents.
The study was conducted by experts from universities and research institutes around the world, including those in the UK , France , the U.S. and Japan and was published in the journal Environmental Science Technology.
“It was a shock to discover that nanoscale fragments of uranium dioxides were released into the environment from Fukushima Daiichi,” commented lead researcher Dr. Satoshi Utsunomiya of Kyushu University’s department of chemistry, who is an expert in engineered nanoparticles in the environment, and how they interact with biological material such as microbes and the human respiratory system. “Yet, there are still many unknowns when it comes to overall information about the debris within the reactors and the impact on the human body. Until the day comes when the nuclear debris is removed from the reactors, it is extremely important to persevere with the continued and careful examination of the debris samples (collected so far) and to accumulate accurate information.”
The new findings could mean the decommissioning of the Fukushima plant, which is currently estimated to take 40 years, could be an even bigger undertaking than originally believed.
“Having better knowledge of the released microparticles is also vitally important as it provides much needed data on the status of the melted nuclear fuels in the damaged reactors,” Utsunomiya was reported elsewhere as saying. “This will provide extremely useful information for the decommissioning strategy.”
The health impacts of the 2011 disaster has been widely debated among scientists. Some, such as Imperial College, London cancer specialist Geraldine Thomas, have praised the post-disaster management, particularly the evacuations and quick severing of the food chain. Unlike the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine, where delayed evacuations and failure to prevent residents consuming contaminated dairy products led to cancer and other illnesses, such an expeditious response at Fukushima ensured health consequences will be so low as to be inconsequential, Thomas says.
Others, however, have criticised the post-disaster response, pointing to the poor distribution if iodine tablets (to prevent thyroid cancers) and the failure to evacuate residents from some of the areas that were most heavily contaminated by the radiation (including Iitate Village). Indeed, up to 200 thyroid cancer cases have been detected in Fukushima children so far and according to one 2016 study, Japan can expect to see an additional 10,000 cancer cases in the region most impacted by the nuclear disaster.
Other issues that are often criticised include plant operator TEPCO’s failure to accurately report on the exact extent and nature of radioactive leaks from the plant — including leaks into the Pacific Ocean.
The latest findings will further concerns, particularly by those who fall in the anti-nuclear corner, about the true extent of the nuclear disaster, especially in light of the government’s continued attempts to return evacuees to their homes — which skeptics believe are merely an effort to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community about the true impact of the 2011 disasters.