Japan’s environment minister says radioactive water being stored at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant must be dumped into the ocean, a statement that comes just days after South Korea expressed concerns over the wastewater to the international nuclear watchdog.
Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada says draining the more than 1 million tons of contaminated water being stored at the Fukushima plant into the sea is the “only option” left as the site is running out of space to store it.
The volume of radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has been growing daily since the March 2011 meltdowns at the plant. It is the result of groundwater mixing with radioactive contaminants from three reactors that experienced meltdowns and explosions following a massive earthquake and tsunami in the region.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) initially claimed it had stripped the contaminated water of all dangerous particles except for tritium, but was forced to backtrack following tests that showed the wastewater still contained many highly dangerous radionuclides, including strontium and caesium.
The government is awaiting an assessment from an expert panel before deciding on how to dispose of the radioactive water, though local Fukushima fisheries and other residents continue to protest its release into the Pacific.
Neighbour South Korea is also concerned. Last Thursday, Seoul sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency expressing concerns over the radioactive wastewater, calling on the nuclear watchdog to play a more active role. It also summoned a senior Japanese embassy official last month to explain how Japan plans to deal with the water and has asked Japan “to take a wise and prudent decision on the issue.”
During an IAEA board meeting in Vienna Sept. 10, Japan’s ambassador Takeshi Hikihara reportedly said Japan has been transparent in showing to the international community how it has been dealing with the aftermath of the nuclear accident and is taking every precaution to ensure the safety of the marine environment.
TEPCO has said it will run out of storage space at the plant by 2022, while environment minister Harada says the dumping of the current load — which is being stored within the plant’s grounds in more than 1,000 containers — could makeup to 17 years, once it has been treated and diluted to acceptably safe levels.
While Harada believes Japan now has no choice but to dump the water, Shaun Burnie, a nuclear expert with Greenpeace, criticised Harada's "innacurate and misleading statement" and called the discharge of the water into the ocean “the worst option” available.
“The only viable option, and it’s not without risks, is the long-term storage of this water in robust steel tanks over at least the next century, and the parallel development of water processing technology,” he says. As Japan has no equivalent to Europe’s Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR), Greenpeace has voiced its concerns over the water crisis with the UN International Maritime Organisation, he added.
A number of proposals to treat the water were submitted to a Japanese government task force by nuclear companies, all of which were dismissed as being impracticable – a euphemism for “too expensive,” says Burnie.
“The reality is there is no end to the water crisis at Fukushima, a crisis compounded by poor decision-making by both TEPCO and the government,” he says.