The Japanese government has approved a plan by Tepco to release more than a million tons of water stored in tanks at the site of the Fukushima 1 nuclear power station. The water is supposed to be gradually released into the ocean starting two years from now.
Currently about 1.2 million t of contaminated water are stored on site, an amount that is increasing by about 170 t per day. Tepco is expected to run out of space at the end of 2022. Water is being injected into severely damaged reactors on the site to cool the remains of nuclear fuel left inside. It leaks back out, mingles with ground water that seeps in and is then purified through a filtration system called ALPS. This removes most of the radioactive contamination, but leaves tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen which can not be chemically removed from water. So it ends up in the storage tanks.
Proponents of the release argue that tritium poses little hazard in small quantities. Radiation from tritium is so weak, it only travels for a couple of mm through air and it is stopped by the dead cells on the outside of human skin. Even if ingested it does not accumulate in the human body.
The water released will be diluted to levels so low it would meet drinking water standards in Japan and in other countries. Opponents fear an economic backlash against local fisheries or argue in principle that Japan has no right to contaminate the Pacific ocean, which is not just their territorial waters but shared by many other countries.
Proponents call such criticism hypocritical, given that many other countries, including the Republic of Korea, routinely release tritium into the ocean from their own nuclear facilities.
The issue is complicated. First of all, whether the danger from the water release is real or exaggerated, fishermen will suffer economically because consumers will end up avoiding fish from Fukushima more than they already do, even if it was safe to eat. If the release is unavoidable, the fishermen should receive compensation for their economic losses. That is only fair.
The truth about the water is not black or white. The 1.2 million t of water that has accumulated over the past decade was treated in different ways at different times. Some may indeed contain only those low levels of tritium as a contaminant, but other tanks will hold water that still has significant amounts of caesium, strontium and other dangerous isotopes that unlike tritium can accumulate in organisms and pose long term hazards. More purification and testing will definitely be needed before a release can take place. As Motoko Rich and Makiko Inoue reported for the New York Times in 2019:
Until last year, Tepco indicated that with the vast majority of the water, all but one type of radioactive material — tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that experts say poses a relatively low risk to human health — had been removed to levels deemed safe for discharge under Japanese government standards.
But last summer, the power company acknowledged that only about a fifth of the stored water had been effectively treated.
Last month, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry briefed reporters and diplomats about the water stored in Fukushima. More than three-quarters of it, the ministry said, still contains radioactive material other than tritium — and at higher levels than the government considers safe for human health.
The authorities say that in the early years of processing the deluge of water flowing through the reactors, Tepco did not change filters in the decontamination system frequently enough. The company said it would re-treat the water to filter out the bulk of the nuclear particles, making it safe to release into the ocean.
(New York Times, 2019-12-23)
Long term there is no real alternative to releasing the water. Once its radioactivity has been reduced to only tritium, dilution and disposal at sea should pose little risk.
The challenge however is that Tepco and the government have a public trust problem, at home and abroad. How do we know the water released will be as clean as claimed?
Any release process needs to be transparent and independently verified to make sure there are no shortcuts or other shenanigans.
- Why South Korea is wrong about Fukushima tritium (Japan Times, 2019-11-15)
- Japan Wants to Dump Nuclear Plant’s Tainted Water. Fishermen Fear the Worst. (New York Times, 2019-12-23)