Japan to Dump Radioactive Water into the Ocean

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The Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant (Image Credit: Anadolu Agency)

12 years after the disastrous Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO, the company representing the nuclear plants, announced plans to begin releasing treated radioactive water into the sea, sparking international outrage and discussion.

On March 11th, 2011, the Tōhuko earthquake hit Japan, to this day still the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japan. Its shockwaves formed the accompanying Tōhuko tsunami. In response to the detection of the earthquake, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant automatically stopped its fission reactors, which generated power for the plant. This put a strain on the nuclear power plant’s cooling system, exacerbated by other electrical grid supply problems from the natural disaster. As such, the cooling system was not getting enough energy from the main supply, so it began using energy from emergency diesel generators. 

A cooling system is vital to the continued safety of a nuclear power plant. Water must be pumped around the reactor cores, as they produce decay heat, even after being turned off. As a result, the safety of the plant now rested on the diesel generators. 

After switching to the backup generators, a 14m total wave from the Tōhuko tsunami caused flooding in the lower parts of the nuclear power plant, where the generators were stored. This caused the failure of the diesel generators and the plant to no longer be cooled. The result was 3 nuclear meltdowns and 3 hydrogen explosions, spreading radiation through the surrounding area, and led to 110,000 residents being evacuated within the 20km radius of the power plant.

However, even after more than a decade, the damaged reactor cores still need to be cooled with water. As such, for the last 12 years, TEPCO has been pumping water to keep the cores cool. However, upon cooling the core, this water becomes contaminated with radiation and needs to be stored in storage tanks

The recent decision to begin disposal stems from the filling of these storage tanks. Last month, the tanks were reported to be at 97% capacity, with estimates suggesting that the tanks will be completely full by 2024. In response, the company has decided to begin treating and disposing of the water into the ocean.

The general scientific consensus is that this disposal will be safe. The largest concern with the water is its Tritium levels, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Upon treatment, almost all of the radioactivity is removed from the water, except radioactive Tritium, due to the separation process’ high cost and its potential environmental damage of releasing high levels of CO2. A 2021 publication released by experts in natural resources and oceanography has stated that the Tritium levels in the water will be a negligible percentage of the natural Tritium levels already present in the oceans, indicating the lack of effect this release would have.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an independent organisation set up by the UN, has more recently concluded that this disposal is in compliance with international safety standards, referencing, on July 4th 2023, a “negligible radiological impact on the people and the environment”. It has also promised to continue monitoring the safety and effectiveness of the plan during the disposal phase. This report effectively acts as a UN approval of Japan’s plans.

However, there is also strong opposition to this plan. Japan’s fishing industries, which suffered widespread reputation damage after the disaster itself in 2011, have vehemently opposed the plan. They argue that this water release could lead to falling exports of Fukushima seafood, affecting the livelihoods of many within the industry. There are even concerns about a ban on all exports, not unfounded with historical precedent, as seen when the US and the EU enacted a complete ban on Fukushima produce for 10 years after the meltdowns. The president of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives has stated that he wants “The government to fully take responsibility” in its decision, calling for the starting of a fund to promote Fukushima seafood if sales fall.

International outrage has also been apparent. China has taken a firm stance against this release, stating that the IAEA’s approval was rushed out and should not be taken as approval for the plan. They have also called for Japan to bear full responsibility for any negative consequences of this plan. The opposition party of South Korea, the Democratic Party of Korea, has also opposed this plan and is seeking collective action with other nations in the Pacific sphere to counteract this plan. The South Korean government has also begun routine inspections on imported seafood products due to concerns.

The scientific community also has pushback on this topic. Robert H. Richmond is the director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, a university with a globally-acclaimed Oceanology department. After visits to Fukushima, meetings with TEPCO, and a review of the details of the plan, he has called the plan “ill-advised” and “premature”, citing concerns of unclear data released by TEPCO, the lack of contemplation of non-Tritium radioactive harms, and the bioaccumulation of tritium that passes up the food chain and reaches us. 

Still, despite the controversy, the plan seems to be moving ahead. The 1.32 million metric tons, roughly 500 Olympic swimming pools, of radioactive water is being filtered and diluted to internationally recognized safe levels of Tritium before being released in the next 2 to 3 decades.

Written by Anthony Hu

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