The writing has been on the wall for a while now, but it finally appears that Japan is ready to proceed with dumping over 1 million tons of contaminated water from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea. The water will be treated to remove some—but not all—of the contaminants. Understandably, the local fishing industry is vocally opposing the plan.
Fukushima is the nuclear disaster that keeps on giving. In this case, it’s 170 tons of radioactive wastewater each and every day.
The angry nuclear power plant, ravaged by a tsunami in 2011, requires regular doses of cooling water to prevent its damaged cores from melting, and this water is seriously starting to add up. To date, the plant’s bidding master, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has had to store 1.23 million tons of the toxic stuff in 1,044 gigantic water tanks, reports the Japan Times. These are truly staggering numbers, and TEPCO anticipates it’ll run out of room for new tanks by 2022.
According to the Japan Times, the Japanese government is ready to pull the trigger on a plan to dump the contaminated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, in a tedious process that’s expected to last decades.
To be clear, TEPCO isn’t going to unceremoniously toss it into the ocean. The company will employ an advanced liquid processing system (ALPS) to remove most of the contaminants from the water. Well, aside from the hydrogen isotope tritium, which cannot be removed by ALPS but is deemed a low risk radionuclide in terms of its potential to trigger diseases like leukemia and cancer.
The debate on what to do with all this contaminated water has been raging for the past seven years. In September 2019, Japanese environment minister Yoshiaki Harada primed the public for this eventuality, saying it was his “simple opinion” that this was the right path. In early 2020, an expert panel commissioned by the government to look into the matter gave its blessing, saying the dumping plan presented “realistic options.” That said, a study from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, published in August, warned of the possibility that other potentially hazardous contaminants in the wastewater, namely carbon-14, cobalt-60, and strontium-90, could still be released into the Pacific Ocean.
TEPCO maintains that the levels of radionuclides—aside from tritium—will fall within international standards but only after secondary treatment work, reports The Japan Times. At the same time, Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has gone on record saying the TEPCO plan meets global standards.
“Whatever way forward must be based on a scientific process, a process which is based on a scientifically based and proven methodology,” said Grossi back in February. “It is obvious that any methodology can be criticized. What we are saying from a technical point of view is that this process is in line with international practice.”
The government could make a final decision on the matter before the month is done. If approved, it would take a couple of years for TEPCO to build the required infrastructure and receive two enthusiastic thumbs up from the Nuclear Regulation Authority, according to Kyodo News. At the earliest, the dumping won’t start until 2022.
The fishing community in the area is less than thrilled. They fear that the dumping of contaminated water will spook consumers and that people, both at home and abroad, won’t want anything to do with seafood sourced from the region (indeed, South Korea has already banned Fukushima seafood). Fishers are also contending that the move will undo years of work to rebuild the beleaguered industry, as Kyodo News reports. Hiroshi Kishi, president of JF Zengyoren—a fisheries cooperative—has expressed his opposition to the TEPCO plan.
“We are dead against a release of contaminated water to the ocean as it could have a catastrophic impact on the future of Japan’s fishing industry,” said Kishi during a recent meeting with government officials.
In response, the government said it will set up a special panel to address and ameliorate concerns. Clearly, not everyone is going to be happy with whatever decision the government makes. But hey, they’re called nuclear disasters for a reason.