It can be hard to maintain optimism when working amongst the ruins of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant cleanup efforts in Japan. Every day since a 2011 earthquake triggered a massive tsunami that led to 18,000 deaths and the meltdown of three nuclear reactors, an army of workers has struggled to pump some 100,000 gallons of radioactive water out of the crippled site and into storage tanks before it reaches the Pacific Ocean.
Current techniques are too slow or too costly to determine what percentage of water is contaminated and what is not. To be safe, crews try to contain it all because millions of lives depend on it. The meltdown of the Fukushima’s uranium fuel rods released radioactive isotopes into the environment. One of the most volatile of these is strontium -90 (90Sr), which has a half-life of at least 29 years.
Now some of those same storage tanks that contain over a half a million tons of radioactive water are leaking. To prevent further environmental damage, workers are pumping nearly a square mile of cement into the ocean to coat the seabed near the plant. The estimated $7 billion cleanup is daunting, endless, and unforgiving. Even with this extraordinary effort, California has already found trace amounts of radioactive water along its coastline more than 5,000 miles away.
‘Seeing Fukushima’s evacuated area is quite a shock,” Stephane Dion, a member of Canada’s Parliament, who served as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Minister of the Environment, recently reported after touring the site. “It is one thing to imagine it, another to see the consequences of the nuclear disaster with your own eyes…”
Science to the Rescue
Thanks to scientists at Fukushima University, the Japanese government, and PerkinElmer, a new reaction-based ICP-MS analysis of 90Sr will dramatically shorten the cleanup effort. The procedure automatically separates 90Sr to analyze its presence in soil and fresh water in under 30 minutes instead of the 7 to 10 days it currently requires. Scientists first announced the breakthrough for soil analysis in 2013. Further improvements now make the analysis as much as ten times more accurate. Research continues on further developing the technology to analyze seawater as well. Throughout the entire process, PerkinElmer instrumentation has played a central role.
“PerkinElmer technology was instrumental in speeding up the formerly labor-intensive radiation screening,” says Yoshitaka Takagai, Associate Professor of Analytical Chemistry at Fukushima University. “The sensitivity of the instruments also helped in developing protocols for removing topsoil to ensure effective decontamination of public areas such as school yards and playgrounds.”
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