Radioactive Seas

Officials believe contaminated water leaked into ocean near damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors

A 2005 shot of Brendan Margison surfing in front of the now-damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Photo: Aichner

The head of Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA) recently confirmed that contaminated water from the Number 3 nuclear power reactor at Fukushima has likely been leaking into the ocean for the past two years. In March of 2011, a massive earthquake and deadly tsunami ravaged much of Japan and three of the six nuclear reactors in Fukushima melted down. In a recent statement, Shunichi Tanaka, the head of the NRA, said he believes that groundwater near the plant is leaking into the basement of the damaged reactors, becoming contaminated, and eventually making its way out to sea. Neither the NRA nor TEPCO (the organization that runs the Fukushima plant) have been able to detect where the leak is coming from or been able to stop it.

“I think contamination of the sea is continuing to a greater or lesser extent,” Tanaka told a reporter from Reuters recently. “It was contaminated at the time of the accident, but I think it has been continuing for the last two years. Coming up with countermeasures against all possible scenarios is a top priority. We’ve seen for a fact that levels of radioactivity in the seawater remain high, and contamination continues—I don’t think anyone can deny that. We must take action as soon as possible.”

In the past, TEPCO has been vocal in stating that contaminated water had not been leaking into the ocean. But recently, they switched positions, stating that contaminated water had indeed leaked into the sea and apologizing to the people of Fukushima. A recent radiation test conducted by TEPCO showed a soaring amount of radioactive cesium in an observation well near the damaged plant. According to TEPCO, over the course of three days this month the radiation levels in the well increased 90 fold, which brought the levels to more than 150 times Japan’s safety standard. However, recent tests of seawater were reported as normal.

Hawaii’s Kekoa Bacalso, who traveled frequently to Japan in the past, has vowed not to surf anywhere near the affected area for years to come. “Japan is such an amazing place, but when you hear that they still don’t have a handle on the radiation problems at Fukushima, you have to do a double-take. It’s been two years since the disaster and they’re just now admitting that contaminated water has been leaking into the Pacific.” exclaimed Bacalso. “I’m baffled. I absolutely love Japan, but I won’t be surfing or traveling near Fukushima for a while because of this.”

Kekoa Bacalso used to be a regular to the shores of Japan, but he won't be heading back due to the increasing levels of radiation in their water. Meanwhile, the radiation from Fukushima could potentially make its way across the Pacific to Bacalso's home on the North Shore, where it could someday effect waves like this at Backdoor. Photo: Noyle

Hiromi Matsubara, executive director of the Japanese chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, describes the situation at Fukushima as dire and worries that the situation could get worse.

“Massive amounts of radioactive water is stocked inside the Fukushima Daiichi Plant. The water is primarily used to cool the reactor. TEPCO is running out of a place to store the water and there were a few occasions when they publicly announced the possibility of intentionally discharging this contaminated water into the ocean, but only after they adequately decreased and treated the radiation level below the legal limit,” said Matsubara. “Obviously, local fisherman, unions, citizens, NGOs, and the Surfrider Foundation strongly opposed this plan and it has been put on hold.”

For Keito Matsuoka, a Japanese surfer from the town of Sendai, the news of the ongoing problems at the reactor have forced him to lose faith in his government’s ability to handle the situation. “I don’t know what to believe anymore. There are so many conflicting reports from the government. One day you’ll hear that the radiation levels are low, and the next you hear about the recent spike we had. The town where I’m originally from, Sendai, is located near Fukushima. And even though the government says that it’s safe to go in the area, I don’t trust them. I can’t surf my home break more than a few times every month because I’m scared of the radiation.”