Fukushima: Contaminated water persisted unusually for a decade after the nuclear disaster


We are running out of space to build additional cisterns, the government wants to gradually discharge water into the sea – once it is decontaminated and diluted – over the next three decades or more.

Although a formal decision has yet to be announced, the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) insisted that their priority was release into the ocean and that it was completely safe.

The only thing holding them back seems to be the Olympics and the bad publicity they could create before the Games start in July, experts say.

The idea of ​​releasing the water has infuriated the Fukushima fishing community, which has only just risen to its feet after being killed after the 2011 disaster and subsequent ocean contamination. South Korea is also angry, even though it is more than 600 miles away from the other side of Japan.

“Recovery is the most important thing for us, and draining the water will pull the recovery process,” said Takayuki Yanai, head of the fishing cooperatives association at Onahama Harbor. The local fishing industry is still half the size it was before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, he said. “I really want them to stop. There must be other possibilities. ”

The water has already been purified or will be purified by an advanced purification system, known as ALPS, which is capable of removing almost all radionuclides present in water, including really dangerous ones like strontium and cesium.

Tritium would remain, a natural isotope of hydrogen that is considered less dangerous to human health, and nuclear power plants around the world routinely release it into the ocean. In addition to tritium, there would be small traces of carbon-14.

If all purified water were released into the sea in just one year – unlike three decades – the impact of radiation on the local population would not exceed one thousandth of the exposure to natural radiation in Japan, said Yumiko Hata of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry ( METI).

The The International Atomic Energy Agency said the discharge is “technically feasible” and has offered to provide independent radiation monitoring to reassure the public that it will comply with international standards.

But in terms of public confidence, the Japanese government and TEPCO are on shaky feet.

From the first weeks of the disaster, when they admitted extremely slowly that the three reactor cores had suffered melting, there was a tendency to diminish or disintegrate when it came to bad news.

TEPCO has claimed for years that the purified water stored in the plant contains only tritium, burying data deep on its website showing that the treatment process has failed to remove many hazardous radionuclides.

Finally, in 2018, it was forced to admit that 70 percent of water is still contaminated with hazardous radioactive elements – including strontium-90, a radionuclide that seeks bones and can cause cancer – and will need to be re-treated before release.

TEPCO explains the contamination by saying that it accelerated the treatment process after the accident because it needed to quickly reduce the radiation in the water to a controllable level. Further tests show that ALPS, when applied carefully and repeatedly, can reduce radionuclide concentrations within international standards, the report said.

Ryounosuke Takanori, TEPCO’s global communications manager, acknowledged that some of the data on his website was not presented “in an easy-to-understand format”, but said the company was working hard to “proactively engage in communication initiatives to accurately and transfer information quickly. “

Ken Buesseler, a senior marine radiochemist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts said he would rather see all the water treated properly before any is released.

Radioactive elements such as cesium and strontium are many times more dangerous to human health than tritium and are much more likely to accumulate in fish and on the seabed, he said.

“Once you clean it, decide what to do,” he said. They spent eight years not telling us about it, and now they say, ‘Trust us, we’ll take care of it.’ ”

In the port of Onahama, about 40 kilometers south of the wreck of a nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan, fish samples from each ocean catch are analyzed for radiation. Tests routinely come back clear, though last month a solitary black stone it was found to have a cesium level five times higher than the national standard, the first fish to fall on the test in 16 months.

Yanai of the fisheries cooperative says he worries about releasing more tritium into the sea, but his main concern is the “irrational fear of consumers” that is doing “reputational damage” to his product.

Shaun Burnie, Senior Nuclear Specialist at Greenpeace for East Asia, argued that there are risks involving the release of tritium and carbon-14 into the sea and would like its disposal to be delayed at least until 2035, giving more time for tritium to decay into hydrogen.

But he ties the decision to a much bigger government pledge – remove all highly radioactive bark from collapsed reactors by 2041 or 2051, although the technology for this still does not exist, together with millions of tonnes of contaminated topsoil removed from local fields.

U new report, Greenpeace calls this promise a “delusion.”

“It’s just not going to happen, but it’s a kind of mantra,” Burnie said. “Water is a symbol. If they can get rid of it, they are fulfilling that obligation to eliminate the problem and will therefore discharge it into the Pacific Ocean. “

Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.

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