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Fukushima frustrations: what is the issue with Japan’s wastewater plan?

Just over ten years ago the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan triggered a tsunami that flooded the Fukushima nuclear plant’s reactors. This flooding resulted in fuel in three of the reactors overheating and partly melting the cores, which is known as a nuclear meltdown. Radioactive material began leaking into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean, resulting in evacuations and an ever-widening exclusion zone. 

Nevertheless, earlier this year, a UN report said there had been “no adverse health effects” documented among Fukushima residents directly related to the radiation from the disaster.  It also stated any future radiation-related health effects were “unlikely to be discernible”. But many remain wary, with most residents not returning to their homes despite officials lifting restrictions in many areas.

The current issue is what to do with the millions of tonnes of water that was used to cool the melted reactor cores; this water pooled in the basement levels of the building and is currently being stored in over 1000 storage tanks, but these are expected to fill up by 2022.

Following years of debate over how to dispose of the water, Japan has approved a plan to release more than one million tonnes of the contaminated water into the sea. This plan sets out that work to release the water will begin in about two years, and is expected to take decades to complete.

What are the safety concerns?

Japan argues that the release of the water is safe because the water will be processed to remove almost all radioactive elements and diluted so that radiation levels are below those set for drinking water prior to release.

However, critics have argued that the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) that Japan plans on using has failed to reduce contaminants such as strontium-90, cobalt, rhodium and iodine to ‘non-detectable’ levels – which was initially promised as a condition for releasing the water into the Pacific Ocean. Hitachi, the company operating the system, has declined to comment on this and the Japanese government hasn’t commented either.

Around 80% of the water stored at the site still contains radioactive substances above legal levels

This criticism has not been helped by the admittance by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), who run the plant, that in September last year around 80% of the water stored at the site still contained radioactive substances above legal levels. This confession came after the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry held public hearings in Tokyo and Fukushima – at which local residents and fishermen protested against the plans.

TEPCO has now admitted that levels of strontium-90 are more than 100 times above legally permitted levels in 65,000 tonnes of water that has been through the ALPS cleansing system. These readings are also 20,000 times above levels set by the government in several storage tanks at the site.

Experts agree that the danger posed by any release depends on the concentrations of radionuclides and the subsequent contamination of fisheries’ products. For example, if strontium-90 is ingested by humans, such as through seafood, it can cause bone cancer and leukaemia. Therefore, the effectiveness of ALPS is crucially important.

Dr Ken Buesseler, a marine chemistry scientist with the US Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said that: “Until we know what is in each tank for the different radionuclides, it is hard to evaluate any plan for the release of the water and expected impacts on the ocean.”

Nonetheless, scientists have said that the elements remaining in the water are only harmful to humans in large doses; so with dilution in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, the treated water poses no scientifically detectable risk.

Tritium is so weak in its radioactivity it won’t penetrate plastic wrapping

– Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority

Another issue is the tritium (one isotope that cannot be removed from the water), but this poses a low risk to human and animal health. It has a half-life of only around 12 years, and so will disappear from the environment over decades rather than centuries.

However, radiation from tritium can be ingested. The fishing industry is concerned about the risk of it penetrating the food chain, and being consumed by more people through seafood. Even so, while the risk exists, the scientific consensus is that it doesn’t pose a threat to human health.

Shaun Burnie, a nuclear specialist with Greenpeace, argues against this, saying: “The planned release of billions of becquerels by TEPCO cannot be considered an action without risk to the marine environment and human health.”

Children are believed to be especially vulnerable, with tritium understood to go directly into the soft tissues and organs of the body, potentially increasing cancer risks.

Robert Daguillard, a spokesman for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, has said that “any exposure to tritium radiation could pose some health risk… and health risks include increased occurrence of cancer”.

But others say that tritium already exists in the natural environment from both the sun and water routinely released from nuclear plants around the world. Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, even claims that “tritium is so weak in its radioactivity it won’t penetrate plastic wrapping”. 

Furthermore, the nuclear weapons tests executed by the US, UK, and France during the mid-1900s are said to have released vastly more radiation than that which the release of this water will.

Who is opposed to Japan’s decision?

Domestic opposition has been fierce. Some of the most vocal opponents are the fishing groups, who argue that customers will refuse to buy produce from the region. The industry was hit especially hard after the 2011 disaster, with many countries banning the import of seafood caught off Japan’s north-eastern coast, where the disaster happened. Consequently, many are worried about the industry being hit again.

Greenpeace gathered more than 184,000 signatures for a petition calling on the government to reconsider

The head of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives declared the decision “utterly unacceptable” to his members. Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre, said that “it is an act that makes us lose confidence in the government’s promise not only for the present but also for the future”.

Environmental groups have also expressed their displeasure. Greenpeace gathered more than 184,000 signatures for a petition calling on the government to reconsider its plan.

China, Taiwan and South Korea are thoroughly against the decision, with China stating that Japan had decided to release the water “without regard for domestic and foreign doubts and opposition.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lihian, said: “To safeguard international public interests and Chinese people’s health and safety, China has expressed grave concern to the Japanese side through the diplomatic channel.”

The Chinese foreign ministry added that the “approach is extremely irresponsible and will seriously damage international public health and safety and the vital interests of the people of neighbouring countries”.

The South Korean government called an emergency meeting to discuss the issue. The Japanese ambassador was summoned to the foreign ministry later in the day to receive a formal protest. Since then, Seoul has also explored petitioning an international court to stop the plan.

More than thirty South Korean college students hit the headlines recently for shaving their heads in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, in protest of Japan’s decision and carrying messages calling for the plan to be ditched.

Taiwan also communicated its concerns to Japan. It is possible that one or more national governments may take legal action against Japan.

Who is in support?

The US is seemingly supportive of Japan in this matter, claiming that Japan had “adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards”. US climate envoy John Kerry added that he believed Japan had made the decision in a transparent manner and would continue to follow due procedures.

The past ten years since the Fukushima disaster has shown the vast array of issues that arise when something does go wrong

Similarly, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also supports the plan, saying that the release is similar to the disposal of wastewater at other plants around the world. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi claimed: “Releasing into the ocean is done elsewhere. It’s not something new. There is no scandal here.”

However, this fiasco may be another nail in the coffin for public opinion of nuclear power. While the nuclear plants may be good when they’re working, the past ten years since the Fukushima disaster has shown the vast array of issues that arise when something does go wrong.

This is another issue on top of the injuries and mass evacuations that serve to add to the criticism of nuclear energy. Especially as this is a problem that has arisen so far after the initial failure, showing the long-lasting effects that such a disaster can have. This decision by Japan has potentially soured its relations with a number of countries, as well as perhaps alienated some of their own citizens.

“The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima,” said Kazue Suzuki, a campaigner with Greenpeace Japan. “It has discounted the radiation risks and turned its back on the clear evidence that sufficient storage capacity is available on the nuclear site as well as in surrounding districts.”

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