“The sea is not a garbage dump,” Jan Hakervamp, a nuclear energy expert at Greenpeace has said. He was reacting to Japan’s plan to dump huge quantities of radioactive water into the Pacific ocean. The material has been collected at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant which suffered a catastrophic nuclear disaster in 2011. Japan says they will run out of space to store the radioactive contaminants as early as 2022.
After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was destroyed by an earthquake, Japan used 400 cubic meters of water per day to cool down the temperature of the reactor. Meanwhile, groundwater began to flow into the buildings and become contaminated. The process continues to produce a huge amount of radioactive water every day, according to a 2015 report by the IAEA, or the International Atomic Energy Agency. That water has been stored on-site in storage tanks; however, they are running out of room to store it all. Japan’s environment minister Yoshiaki Harada claimed that the only solution is to “drain it into the sea and dilute it.”
The Fukushima nuclear disaster was one of only two Level 7 nuclear events, the other being Chernobyl. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from the area due to radioactive contamination. Products from Japan is still under import restrictions by 23 countries. Even in 2018, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has said that isotopes like strontium which is radioactive still lingered in the water. The heavy metal is known to cause anaemia, oxygen shortages, and even cancer at high levels of concentration.
While the water has been treated to remove much of the radioactive material, one contaminant—tritium—can not be removed. A committee from the Atomic Energy Society of Japan has said it could take 17 years to dilute and discharge the radionuclides at safe levels. Moreover, some tanks are 20,000 times greater than the safety standard of the government.
According to levels of tritium shown in the newest report from TEPCO, the concentration far exceeds Health Canada standards. However, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission Fact Sheet states that “tritium exposure can pose a health risk if it is ingested through drinking water or food, inhaled or absorbed through the skin in large quantities.” As long as the wastewater does not become drinking water directly, there should be no risk of these illnesses.
If Japan does dump radioactive water into the ocean, it is expected to spread far. Just this March, contaminants from Fukushima were found as far away as the Bering Sea. While the isotopes of tritium are not expected to have significant influences on the environment as radiation levels remain low, the radiation level is slowly increasing.
The plan has been protested both by Japanese citizens, such as those involved in the local fishing industry, and Japan’s neighbors. South Korea has shown concern about the plan of dropping the wastewater and suggests finding an alternative way with it and the CBC news indicated that South Korea called the Japanese Embassy to explain their thoughts about the radioactive water. Also according to the DW news “Last week, the government followed up by sending an official letter to the IAEA requesting assistance in its efforts to ensure that radioactive water was not released from the Fukushima plant.”
The Greenpeace offered another expensive solution for Japan: a company called Kurion offers a cleanup system that costs $1 billion USD to set up and “several hundred million dollars to operate each year.”
A senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany-Shaun Burnie said “The Japanese government has been presented with technical options, including from US nuclear companies, for removing radioactive Tritium from the contaminated water. So far it has chosen, For financial and political reasons, to ignore these.”
The Japanese government is awaiting a report from an expert panel.
Image Credit: Greg Webb / IAEA