Breaching sea defences, the water from the wave shut down emergency generators that were cooling the reactor cores. The result was a series of nuclear meltdowns and hydrogen explosions that released a large amount of radioactive material into the surrounding environment — including microparticles rich in radioactive caesium that reached as far Tokyo, 225 km away.
Recent studies have revealed that the fall-out from reactor unit 1 also included larger caesium-bearing particles, each greater than 300 micron in diameter, which have higher levels of activity in the order of 105 Bq per particle. These particles were found to have been deposited in a narrow zone stretching around 8 km north-northwest from the reactor site.
Surface soil samples
In their study, chemist and environmental scientist Satoshi Utsunomiya of Japan’s Kyushu University and colleagues have analyzed 31 of these particles, which were collected from surface soil taken from roadsides in radiation hotspots.
“[We] discovered a new type of radioactive particle 3.9 km north northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which has the highest caesium-134 and caesium-137 activity yet documented in Fukushima, 105–106 Bq per particle,” Utsunomiya says.
Alongside the record-breaking radioactivity seen in two of the particles (6.1×105 and 2.5×106 Bq, after correction to the date of the accident) the team also found that they had characteristic compositions and textures that differed from those previously seen in the reactor unit 1 fall-out.
“Owing to their large size, the health effects of the new particles are likely limited to external radiation hazards during static contact with skin,” explained Utsunomiya — with the two record-breaking particles thought too large to be inhaled into the respiratory tract.
Impact on wildlife
However, the researchers note that further work is needed to determine the impact on the wildlife living around the Fukushima Daiichi facility — such as, for example, filter feeding marine molluscs which have previously been found susceptible to DNA damage and necrosis on exposure to radioactive particles.
“The half-life of caesium-137 is around 30 years,” Utsunomiya continued, adding: “So, the activity in the newly found highly radioactive particles has not yet decayed significantly. As such, they will remain [radioactive] in the environment for many decades to come, and this type of particle could occasionally still be found in radiation hot spots.”