I have just returned from another visit to Fukushima and unsurprisingly the talk among local residents centred around the recent advise from a panel of experts that the contaminated water being stored within the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant should be released into the sea.
The draft proposal, penned by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), recommends the gradual release of the water into the Pacific Ocean as a safer, more feasible method than evaporation, which was the method used after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in southeastern U.S. state of Virginia.
Once the proposal has been submitted to the government deliberations will begin on exactly when and how the water should be released.
Much of the contaminated water, which is being stored within the Fukushima No.1's grounds in massive steel containers, has been treated to strip it of 62 of the 63 radionuclides that leaked from the facility after it experienced multiple meltdowns and explosions in March 2011.
The only contaminant that has yet to be removed is tritium, which some experts say is harmless in small doses.
The government has been attempting to release the water for almost three years, despite objections from local fisheries and other groups in the devastated area that have been struggling to rebuild communities devastated by massive earthquakes and tsunami that hit the region on March 11, 2011 and triggered the nuclear disaster.
Those voices grew after plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) initially claimed in 2017 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.
Among those contaminants was strontium -- known as a bone-seeker as, much like calcium, it seeks out bones when imbibed but with a significant difference: strontium can lead to cancer in later life.
Trust such proclamations has long been in low supply since the disasters, with reports of coverups by TEPCO and other scandals having a severely negative impact on an increasingly skeptical public.
"You can't help but feel suspicious of this kind of report, especially when METI is involved," said one man in Fukushima City on February 2 in reference to the ministry's well-documented indiscretions favouring the nuclear industry. "I hear that there are still other avenues that should be explored before releasing the water. such as treating it to remove the tritium. It seems cost is the reason that's getting in the way."
In an earlier blog I reported comments by Shaun Burnie, a nuclear expert with Greenpeace, who has similarly criticised the government's efforts to release the water, calling it “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,” Burnie said during an interview.
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,” said 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 said.
The Japanese government looks set to ignore such opinion and the most recent assessment comes three months after then Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada said draining the contaminated water into the sea was 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.
In addition to local Fukushima fisheries and other residents who continue to protest its release into the Pacific, Japan's neighbour South Korea has also expressed concerns. In October 2019, Seoul sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency calling on the nuclear watchdog to play a more active role in the wastewater issue. It also summoned a senior Japanese embassy official 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 a month earlier, 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.