Fukushima Japan’s Nuclear Wastewater Plan: Concerns and Rage
Following approval from the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog for a contentious plan that comes 12 years after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, Japan will soon start discharging treated radioactive water into the ocean.
The environment minister stated in 2019 that there were “no other options” as space to contain the contaminated material runs out. For years, there has been a plan to release treated wastewater.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, arrived in Japan on Tuesday to visit Fukushima and give Prime Minister Fumio Kishida the IAEA’s safety assessment.
However, the UN’s approval hasn’t done much to reassure alarmed citizens of the surrounding nations or local fishermen who are still suffering the effects of the 2011 disaster.
The IAEA’s conclusions have been questioned by some, with China most recently claiming that the organization’s assessment “is not proof of the legality and legitimacy” of the wastewater release from Fukushima.
There are a few points to know about Japan’s Nuclear Wastewater Plan:
What is the purpose of this?
The Fukushima nuclear plant’s power and cooling systems were damaged by the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which led to reactor core overheating and the contamination of plant water with highly radioactive material.
Since then, fresh water has been pumped into the reactors to cool the fuel debris. Additionally, groundwater and rainwater infiltration have increased the amount of radioactive wastewater that needs to be stored and treated.
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), a state-owned electricity provider, has constructed more than 1,000 enormous tanks to hold the 1.32 million metric tonnes of wastewater that are currently present – more than 500 Olympic swimming pools’ worth.
But there isn’t much room left. The company claims that adding more tanks is not an option and that to safely decommission the plant, which entails decontaminating facilities, demolishing structures, and completely shutting down operations, space must be made available.
What dangers exist in this plan?
Some hazardous substances are present in radioactive wastewater, but most of these can be eliminated from the water, according to TEPCO.
The real problem is a non-removable hydrogen isotope called radioactive tritium. The technology to do so is not yet available.
The contaminated water, according to the IAEA and the Japanese government, will be slowly released over decades and will be greatly diluted.
According to them, this means that the concentration of tritium released would be on par with or less than the amount other nations permit and would comply with all applicable international safety and environmental regulations.
Tritium occurs naturally in the environment, including rain, seawater, tap water, and even the human body, according to TEPCO, the Japanese government, and the IAEA. Therefore, it should be safe to release small amounts into the ocean.
According to Grossi’s statement in the IAEA report, treating water for discharge into the ocean would have “negligible radiological impact on people and the environment.”
Experts disagree on the risk that this presents, though.
Tritium is too weak to penetrate the skin, according to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, but if consumed in “vast quantities,” it can raise cancer risk. While “any radiation exposure could pose some health risks,” the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission also stated that “everyone is exposed to small amounts of tritium every day.”
Robert H. Richmond, director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is one of the international scientists working with the Pacific Island Forum to evaluate the plan for releasing wastewater. This work includes visits to the Fukushima site and meetings with TEPCO, Japanese authorities, and the IAEA. Richmond analyzed the plan’s specifics and deemed it “ill-advised” and “premature.”
One worry is that the wastewater’s impact on marine life might not be sufficiently mitigated by diluting it. Tritium is one example of a pollutant that can pass through different organisms in the food chain, such as bacteria, plants, and animals, and then be “bioaccumulated,” or build up in the marine ecosystem, according to him.
He continued by saying that pollution, overfishing, ocean acidification, and climate change are already putting stress on the world’s oceans. It should not be treated as a “dumping ground,” he declared.
Additionally, the dangers could spread beyond the Asia-Pacific region. According to a 2012 study, bluefin tuna may have traveled from Fukushima to California carrying radionuclides, which are radioactive isotopes similar to those found in nuclear waste.
The water will be released in what way?
The wastewater will first undergo treatment to remove all reusable harmful components. After being placed in tanks, the water is then analyzed to determine how radioactive it still is; according to TEPCO, a large portion of it will undergo a second round of treatment.
After that, the wastewater will be diluted to 1,500 becquerels of tritium (a measure of radioactivity) per liter of pure water.
Comparatively, Japan’s legal limit permits no more than 60,000 becquerels per liter. The US has a limit of 740 becquerel per liter, which is more conservative than the 10,000 allowed by the World Health Organisation.
The diluted water will then be discharged into the Pacific Ocean through an undersea tunnel off the coast. The discharge will be watched over both during and after its release by outside parties, including the IAEA.
Grossi said in the report, “This will make sure that the international safety standards that are important will continue to be used throughout the decades-long process that the Japanese government and TEPCO have set up.”
What opinions do other nations hold?
Support for the plan has come from some quarters, while skepticism has come from others.
In 2021, the State Department claimed that Japan had been “transparent about its decision” and that it appeared that it was abiding by “globally accepted nuclear safety standards.” America has helped Japan.
The amount of tritium released, according to Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council, is thought to be “below the detection limit, and the impact on Taiwan will be minimal.” Southwest of Japan is where the island is situated.
But Japan’s near neighbors are putting up more of a fight.
The wastewater could “unpredictably harm the marine environment and human health,” a prominent Chinese official warned in March. He added: “The Pacific Ocean is not Japan’s sewer for discharging its nuclear-contaminated water.”
A January op-ed by the secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, an intergovernmental organization of Pacific islands that includes Australia and New Zealand, expressed “grave concerns.”
Before any ocean release should be allowed, he wrote, “More data is needed.” “We must work to ensure the safety and security of our children and grandchildren’s futures.”
According to Yonhap, South Korea’s Prime Minister Han Duck-soo expressed support for the proposal in June by claiming he could drink wastewater after it had been treated to meet international standards. This claim was mocked by the opposition leader of the nation.
Don’t other nations also discharge wastewater?
Numerous organizations, such as the IAEA, note that treated wastewater with low levels of tritium is routinely and safely released by nuclear plants all over the world.
Numerous scientists are unconvinced. Even though this is a common practice among nuclear plants, Tim Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, noted that there isn’t nearly enough research on the effects of tritium on the environment and our food supplies.
The University of Hawaii’s Richmond further clarified that “other people’s bad behavior” was not a justification for continuing to discharge wastewater into the ocean. He said that this was “Japan and the IAEA’s best chance to improve the way business is done.”
What is the consensus?
Residents in the area have become much more skeptical, which has led some shoppers to stock up on seafood and sea salt out of concern that these products may be negatively impacted by the wastewater release.
According to store owners, recent increases in sales have resulted in a price increase for sea salt in South Korea, according to Reuters. It cited a popular Korean tweet claiming to have purchased enough seaweed, anchovies, and salt for three years.
The plan has also been opposed by members of the Korean public, some of whom demonstrated outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul while wearing gas masks.
The Japanese public also holds a variety of opinions. In a March poll conducted by Asahi Shimbun, 51% of 1,304 participants supported the wastewater release while 41% were against it. Tokyo’s citizens protested the proposal earlier this year by taking to the streets.
Local fishermen in Fukushima, the prefecture where the disaster occurred, have been outspoken opponents of the plan since day one. After the meltdown, the government suspended fishing operations for many years, and other nations imposed import quotas.
Consumer confidence was never fully recovered even after the surrounding water and fish levels returned to safe levels, and Fukushima’s fishing industry is now only worth a small portion of what it once was.