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'A very fragile situation': Leaks from Japan's wrecked nuke plant raise fears

An earthquake, a tsunami, a nuclear meltdown -- residents of Japan's northeast coast suffered through three intertwined disasters after a massive 9.0 magnitude temblor struck off the coast on March 11, 2011.

TOKYO — Like the persistent tapping of a desperate SOS message, the updates keep coming. Day after day, the operators of the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant have been detailing their struggles to contain leaks of radioactive water.

The leaks, power outages and other glitches have raised fears that the plant — devastated by a tsunami in March 2011 — could even start to break apart during a cleanup process expected to take years.

The situation has also attracted the attention of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which sent a team of experts to review the decommissioning effort last month. They warned Japan may need longer than the projected 40 years to clean up the site. A full report is expected to be released later this month.

Journalists have been given a rare glimpse inside Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was crippled in the 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that hit the country two years ago. NBC News' Arata Yamamoto reports.

The discovery of a greenling fish near a water intake for the power station in February that contained some 7,400 times the recommended safe limit of radioactive cesium only served to heighten concern.

There was also some reassuring news in February, when a report by the World Health Organization said Fukushima had caused “no discernible increase in health risks” outside Japan and “no observable increases in cancer above natural variation” in most of the country.

But for the most affected areas, the report said the lifetime risks of various cancers were expected to increase. For example, baby boys were predicted to have up to a 7 percent greater chance of getting leukemia in their lifetime and for baby girls the lifetime risk of breast cancer could be up to 6 percent higher than normal.

Independent nuclear expert John Large — who has given evidence on the Fukushima disaster to the U.K. parliament and written reports about it for Greenpeace — said there would be hundreds of tons of “intensely radioactive” material in the plant.

He said normally robots could be sent in to remove the fuel relatively easily, but this was difficult because of the damage caused by the tsunami.

Large said the plant was close to the water table, so it was difficult to stop water getting in and out.

“Until you can stop that transfer, you will not contain the radioactivity. That will go on for years and years until they contain it,” he said. "The structures of containment start breaking down. Engineered structures don’t last long when they are put in adverse conditions."

Larged added: "It may have some marked effect on the health of future generations in Japan. What it will create is a Fukushima generation — like in Nagasaki and Hiroshima - where girls particularly will have difficulty marrying because of the stigma of being brought up in a radiation area."

Leaks into the sea would not only affect the marine environment, Large said, as tiny radioactive particles would be washed up on the beach, dried in the sun and then blown over the surrounding countryside by the wind.

AP

View side-by-side the progress that Japan has made since the tsunami and earthquake in March 2011.

Japanese activists are also worried by the ongoing leaks from the plant.

The Associated Press reported that "runoff ... and a steady inflow of groundwater seeping into the basement of their damaged buildings produce about 400 tons of contaminated water daily at the plant." According to the plant's operator, 280,000 tons of contaminated water has been stored in tanks there.

Hisayo Takada, energy campaigner with Greenpeace Japan, complained no real progress had been made.

“It’s still a very fragile situation and measures implemented by the government and [power company] TEPCO are only temporary solutions,” she said. "The issue with the contaminated water is very serious and we're very concerned. And we're very angry because it’s been two years and they've been saying that everything's safe."

Greenpeace has been testing food sold in supermarkets, and to date has not found “radiation levels higher than government guidelines,” Takada said.

But she said the “land and sea will never return to the way it was before the accident.”

One man who knows this all too well is cattle farmer Masami Yoshizawa. He lives in the Namie area, which was once inside a 12-mile, mandatory evacuation zone but is now among the places where people have been allowed to return.

He tends his herd of 350 cows as “a living symbol of protest.”

Nearly a year after a tsunami and 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Japan, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel travels to the evacuation zone surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The plant suffered a triple meltdown in the wake of the earthquake, turning the neighborhoods in the 12 mile radius of the plant into ghost towns. Engel journeyed near the mangled plant which remains very much a hotspot.  Radiation levels were so high, the NBC News team on the ground had to wear face masks and full body suits. Even as NBC News drove half a mile from the reactor, radiation monitors were screaming in alarm.

“As long as they're alive, I will keep them to show to the world -- these cows that have been exposed to radiation, cows that are no longer marketable, and that I’m being told to have slaughtered,” said Yoshizawa, 59.

“For us farmers, it’s impossible for us to return to work in Namie. Our community will disappear. It’s going to become like Chernobyl … Only the elderly who say they don't care about the radiation will return. Children will never return,” he said.

The nuclear industry in the U.S. argues its safety standards are higher than at Fukushima.

Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said it was “incredibly unlikely” that a similar accident could happen in the U.S.

Significant safety improvements were made in the U.S. after Fukushima, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the last major nuclear incident in America at Three Mile Island in 1979, he said.

“Our layers of defense extend beyond what the Japanese had in place,” he said. “We’re now well into our fifth or sixth layer of back-up defenses to ensure there would not be – regardless of the cause – a serious accident that would jeopardize public safety.”

A survey for the institute in February found that 68 percent of Americans supported nuclear energy. 

“[Support] did drop for about six to eight months after the Fukushima accident … it hasn’t quite reached the pre-Fukushima historic highs, but we have rebounded to a considerable extent,” Kerekes said.

Part of this support comes from those who see nuclear energy as key in the fight against climate change.

Kerekes pointed to a report by climatologist James Hansen until recently head of NASA’s Goddard Institute — that said nuclear power had stopped the release of massive amounts of greenhouse gases and saved 1.8 million deaths related to air pollution.

“Every technology has pros and cons. We feel when you look at the benefits of nuclear energy, it’s very effective, round-the-clock electric supply,” Kerekes said.

“As we look to help try to drive our economy and provide jobs that people need, there’s a strong role for nuclear energy going forward. We believe that’s widely recognized on a bipartisan basis.”

It remains to be seen whether this support will be eroded by the drip, drip of leaks from Fukushima.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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