Stricken Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant operator TEPCO has confirmed its intentions to dump hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, despite protests from local fisheries groups, residents and other opposition groups.
More than three-quarters of a million tons of contaminated water will be dumped into the Pacific in an attempt to move ahead in the faltering three-stage, 40-year decommissioning road map of the Fukushima plant, which experienced multiple explosions and meltdowns following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan.
Since the disasters, when radiation emitting from the plant forced the evacuation of more than 150,000 residents, the plant has been plagued by ground water and other technical problems, which has led to contaminated water being stored onsite in tens of thousands of tanks.
Nuclear Regulation Authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka recently questioned the utility's commitment in decommissioning the plant, calling for a controlled release of the water, which now exceeds 770,000 metric tons. While TEPCO had rejected this proposal due to fears of a public backlash, chairman Takeshi Kawamura said it was now felt that the dumping of the contaminated water was a necessary step to show the kind of positive intent by the utility that had previously been lacking.
"Technically, we fully support the (NRA) chairman's proposal," Kawamura said yesterday, adding that there is still strong resistance from local residents, especially fishermen. "I think we should have acted sooner. ... We should start moving faster."
The contaminated water, some of which has been recycled to continue cooling the stricken reactors, has been filtered via a processing system known as ALPS, a $150-million system that reportedly strips the water of cesium and 61 other dangerous isotopes to reduce contamination to levels considered safe enough to dump into the sea. A myriad of technical problems meant this system has largely been offline since the disasters, and TEPCO has been forced to employ other more established filtering systems, such as one developed in the US that only removes strontium from contaminated water.
As of early, 2017, more than 1 million tons of contaminated water was being stored at the plant. Some of it has been recycled to be re-circulated through the reactors in an effort to maintain cooling, while the rest has been left standing in massive tanks.
While researching “Yoshida’s Dilemma,” Lake Barrett, a former head of the US Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Nuclear Waste Management who was part of the early mitigation efforts following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US, said as early as 2013 that storage of contaminated water onsite was “unsustainable,” meaning it would ultimately need to be dumped into the Pacific.
“There needs to be a better focus starting with TEPCO in explaining things … because I think the psychological worry is real and people have already been traumatized, and in my view do not deserve to be traumatized any more,” said Barrett, who was taken on by TEPCO as a groundwater specialist to fill a significant gap among the utility’s 40,000 employees. However, he played down the significance of the contaminated water issue. “In my scientific view, much of the concern (about the contaminated water) is overstated.”
One of the problems faced by the utility in the dumping process, which Barrett and other nuclear experts say is not unusual at nuclear plants, is that one contaminant, tritium, is impossible to filter out by the ALPS system.
As early as March 2016, TEPCO inferred it would start releasing the water into the ocean during that year. Even then, Barrett and other pro-nuclear commentators, backed up by a Canadian academic study, claimed that levels of the only isotope remaining in the stored water after treatment, tritium, “are not a meaningful health risk.”
Indeed, the NRA’s Tanaka also commented that year that the levels of tritium in Fukushima's tanks was so weak that its radioactivity “won’t penetrate plastic wrapping."
Today TEPCO commented on its website that it agreed with Tanaka that "in light of the current scientific and technically based regulations and standards, the release of tritium into the Ocean would not be a problem."
However, Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace, disagrees, saying tritium is a “relatively hazardous” isotope, whose beta particles inside the human body are more harmful than most X-rays and gamma rays. Furthermore, organically bound tritium absorbed by marine life and humans presents “an additional risk,” Burnie says, adding “major uncertainties” in the long-term effects posed by radioactive tritium means “the planned release of billions of becquerels by TEPCO cannot be considered an action without risk to the marine environment and human health.”
Burnie also claims that the ALPS treatment has not completely eliminated all of the other radionuclides, such as strontium and cesium.
It is such concerns that have led to widespread objections to the release of the water by local residents, especially fishermen, who say their industry has suffered enough from the nuclear accident, which has had a multi-billion dollar impact on the local economy. The dumping of the water and negative publicity it would generate would devastate the economy still further, they say.
Nonetheless Kawamura says “the decision has already been made" to dump the contaminated water, according to a report in The Japan Times. Despite that claim, Kawamura suggested that TEPCO will wait for the government investigation panel’s final decision before going ahead with the water dumping.
“We cannot keep going if we do not have the support of the state,” he said.
In its release on Friday, TEPCO also stated that it needed the understanding of people. The dumping was not a final decision and that the safety and recovery of the Fukushima people would first need to be "carefully considered."
Since the 2011 nuclear disasters, tens of thousands of tons of contaminated water has already leaked into the Pacific, something that TEPCO at first covered up but since 2013 even Fukushima power plant chief Masao Yoshida has admitted to. Traces of radiation, including caesium, from the plant have been found as far away as California. In that same year typhoons inundated the plant causing the operator to release around 1,100 tons of contaminated water that could now be contained into the ground.
Even since the construction of the tanks to keep the water a catalog of mishaps have occurred at the plant, including leaks from the tanks themselves, leaks that even the subcontractor charged with building them had warned was destined to happen. The first of those leaks amounted to 100 tons of highly radioactive water that was eventually shown to have overflowed after a valve was left open by mistake, while a second leakage was down to workers overfilling a tank with contaminated water.
During a March 2014 visit to the Fukushima No. 1 plant, which I attended, former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Dale Klein said such indiscretions by TEPCO have not helped with the all-important mission of disposing of the water. “There is progress being made … (but) one of the frustrating things that happens is that TEPCO will take five steps forward and then two steps back.”
Sources: Tokyo Shimbun, TEPCO, Yoshida's Dilemma