Japan 'has failed to reveal risks of Fukushima wastewater dump'

Experts say the country has not disclosed the full risks of the contaminated water, while environmental groups say the claim that Tepco, operator of the nuclear plant, is running out of space to store water from near the distressed site is not true

Japan's neighbours not happy about release of Fukushima wastewater
Over 30 South Korean college students had their hair shaved off on Tuesday in a protest against Japan's decision to release radioactive water from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant into the ocean. The stunt was staged in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on 20 April, 2021, a week after the Japanese government said it had decided to discharge radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. Photo: Chris Jung/NurPhoto via AFP.

(ATF) Japan's neighbours and a number of environmental experts have voiced concern about the country's plan announced on April 13 to dilute 1.25 million tonnes of radioactive wastewater till it reaches a 'safe' level, before releasing it into the Pacific Ocean. 

They are also concerned at reports that fish with excessive radiation have been repeatedly caught off Fukushima waters. 

NHK reported on Tuesday that the Japanese government has banned the sales of black rockfish from Fukushima, after excessive radioactive substance was detected in a specimen caught on 1 April. It was the first ban since restrictions on seafood sales in Fukushima waters were completely lifted last February in Japan.

Excessive radioactive cesium was detected in the same species caught off Fukushima in February too, but the government didn’t impose a restriction back then.

“It is a worrying situation that fish with excessive radiation have been repeatedly caught, and this latest decision by the Japanese government has made it even worse for Fukushima fishermen who have been experiencing the bitterness of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the past decade,” Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace East Asia, told the Global Times.

On another occasion, Burnie said that Japan, as well as the United States, did not fully disclose the risk from the contaminated water.

CELL DAMAGE RISK

Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace East Asia, said that Japan, and the United States, had not fully disclosed the risk from the contaminated water.

"What the Japanese government, and it appears the US, are not accurately representing are the risks from tritium, including the issue of organically bound tritium OBT. This is where 3-9% tritium becomes bound into the cell structure of plants, animals and potentially humans – at which point there is a risk of cell damage," Burnie from the environmental protection organisation told China Daily.

Burnie said that by failing to explain the role of OBT, the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), operator of the Fukushima plant, are not providing accurate scientific data on the potential impact of the wastewater release.

The Japanese government said trial releases of the Fukushima wastewater could start in two years and might take 40 years to complete. 

“Releasing the treated water into the sea is a realistic solution, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said at a Cabinet meeting endorsing the plan. We will do our utmost to keep the water far above safety standards.

The US government extended its support for Japan's decision while the International Atomic Energy Agency said Japan's plan falls in line with international practice.

“We thank Japan for its transparent efforts in its decision to dispose of the treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi site. We look forward to the Government of Japan’s continued coordination with the IAEA,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a Twitter post.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the IAEA, said in a statement the Japanese government’s decision is “in line with practice globally” even though the large amount of water at the Fukushima plant makes it “a unique and complex case”. The IAEA will provide technical support in monitoring and reviewing the plan’s safe and transparent implementation, he said. 

But Japan's neighbours – China, South Korea, Russia, and Taiwan – have voiced opposition to the idea.

"The ocean is not Japan's garbage can, and the Pacific is not Japan's sewer," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Wednesday.

Human rights experts from the United Nations said last Thursday they were deeply disappointed at Japan’s decision, saying the discharge could impact millions of lives and livelihoods in the Pacific region.

“The release of one million tonnes of contaminated water into the marine environment imposes considerable risks to the full enjoyment of human rights of concerned populations in and beyond the borders of Japan,” said Marcos Orellana, special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Michael Fakhri, special rapporteur on right to food, and David Boyd, special rapporteur on human rights and the environment in a joint statement

Opposition also remains high among Japan’s fishermen, who have not yet recovered from food safety concerns after the Fukushima disaster. Discharging the radioactive water will worsen such concerns. 

Other countries releasing treated radioactive water

But Japanese government officials noted that some other countries with nuclear power plants, including China and South Korea, have released treated radioactive water from the plants into the environment.

The Fukushima crisis started in March 2011 when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan and triggered a powerful tsunami. Three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant melted down because the tsunami knocked out the cooling system of the reactors.

To keep the damaged reactor cores from melting, plant operator Tepco pumped seawater into the reactor cores to cool them. Radioactive groundwater and wastewater have been stored on-site to avoid contact with humans and the environment. Over time, the operator has stored 1.25 million tonnes of wastewater in over 1,000 tanks. Space to store the water will be allegedly be "filled up" by 2022.

China, South Korea and Taiwan have banned imports of Fukushima food, while the US prohibits Fukushima produce such as milk, fish, sea urchins, meat and poultry, as well as vegetable products due to nuclear contamination.

TEPCO claims that its complex filtration system called “ALPS” can eliminate almost all 63 types of radioactive elements except for one isotope, called tritium, which remains in the water. 

According to the Japanese government's plan, the tritium – which cannot be removed from the wastewater – will be diluted to less than 1,500 becquerels per liter, one-40th of the concentration permitted under Japanese safety standards and one-seventh of the WHO's guideline for drinking water. 

Shang Qi, a former research fellow from the National Institute of Environmental Health with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), told the Global Times it is a lie to say Japan would dilute hazardous substances by a factor of seven and then discharge them. It is the organic matter that could be naturally degraded in the natural environment, rather than nuclear materials. Dilution makes no sense to total amounts of emissions, Shang said. 

However, various media reports indicate that nuclear power plants around the world have been discharging tritium. 

“Every nuclear power plant in the world has tritium discharges,” Florian Gering from Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection told German media Tagesschau. In 2016, the German nuclear power plants "together released the amount of tritium that Fukushima is now also talking about being released per year", according to him. 

He considers the burden to be negligible if Japan will discharge the Fukushima waste water over a prolonged period.

Meanwhile, reports purportedly from a Hong Kong media source said the average liquid tritium emission of China’s Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant is 49.5 mega-becquerels per year - more than double that of Fukushima’s future annual emissions - and China had 16 nuclear power plants as of the end of last year.

MORE RADIOACTIVE SUBSTANCES

But in addition to tritium (with a half-life of 12.3 years), more dangerous isotopes with longer radioactive lifetimes, such as ruthenium, cobalt, strontium, and plutonium, sometimes slip through Tepco’s filtering process, something the company only acknowledged in 2018, according to the Science magazine

“These radioactive isotopes behave differently than tritium in the ocean and are more readily incorporated into marine biota or seafloor sediments,” Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told the magazine. 

The water treatment method of the Fukushima power plant cannot remove tritium or carbon-14, and does not remove all of the other radioactive isotopes such as strontium-90, iodine 129, cobalt-16. If those radio-nuclides persist in the environment for a long time, they will progressively enter the food chain, Burnie warned. 

One example of a long-lived radioactive isotope is carbon-14, the radioactivity of which decays by 50% in 5,370 years, he told China Daily. "Carbon-14 ... once introduced into the environment, will be delivered to local, regional and global populations for many generations," he said.

But a Japanese government official said the Fukushima water would be “repurified” to meet regulatory standards for these nuclides. 

Buesseler notes that those limits were put in place for operational nuclear power plants, not for the deliberate release of contaminated water from a nuclear disaster.

Shigeyoshi Otosaka, a marine geochemist at the University of Tokyo, also worries about the accumulation of the isotopes in seafloor sediments, where they can get picked up by marine organisms.

'WHY NOT ADD MORE TANKS?'

The possibility is limited, “but it’s important to evaluate it appropriately,” he told Science magazine. For one thing, the Tepco “repurification” has only been tested on a small volume of water. The company needs to verify “whether the processing performance can be maintained for a long period of time,” he says.

Although Tepco claims it will run out of room to store additional water by the middle of 2022, environmental groups say there is space for additional tanks on land adjacent to the Fukushima campus. That storage would allow the radioactive isotopes to naturally decay while buying time to develop new treatment techniques.

Burnie said Japan’s decision to dump Fukushima wasterwater into the ocean is “driven by economics and politics” and that running out of storage is a “false claim”.

Greenpeace fully supports countries to challenge Japanese government under UN Convention on the Law of Sea, he said. 

There are signs that contamination from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan may have spread to North America. 

A report by EnviroNews in 2016 said seaborne cesium 134, the so-called “fingerprint of Fukushima” was detected on US shores for the first time, citing studies by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

In February 2017, University of Victoria detected seaborne cesium-134 from the Fukushima disaster in a Canadian salmon.

While opinions vary, one thing for sure is that it will be difficult for Japan’s Fukushima wastewater plan to win public confidence.

“The nuclear industry’s history of secrecy and cover-ups is only one reason, Tepco’s incompetent and at times dishonest handling so far of the 2011 disaster and its aftermath has shattered what’s left of people’s trust,” Peter Wynn Kirby, an anthropologist and Japan specialist working at the University of Oxford, said in a commentary.

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japan China Korea Taiwan Fukushima nuclear disaster wastewater contaminated water release Suga govt plan plan opposed environment health risks Tepco Greenpeace 'Radioactive' water