Dumping doubts: Releasing Fukushima’s waste water

July 16, 2023
The Candelight Alliance protest outside the Japanese Consulate in Gadi/Sydney. Photo: Seong Joo Han

Nothing said by the nuclear industry can, or should be, taken at face value. Be it safety, correcting defects, righting mistakes or construction integrity, reassurances that turn out to be hollow time and again are chilling.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP) disaster in 2011 forever stained the Japanese nuclear industry. The site has been marked by more than 1000 tanks filled with contaminated water that arises from reactor cooling. Attempts by the Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO) to decommission and clean the plant have led to a daily 150 tonnes of wastewater accumulating at the site, the result of groundwater leakage into the buildings and the cooling process.

According to Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority, the gradual disposal of 1.3 million radioactive tonnes of waste water into the Pacific over three decades can be undertaken without serious environmental consequences.

The view entertained in 2021 was that the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) used to clean the contaminated water would be effective. But a primary concern is the presence of a radioactive form of hydrogen, tritium, which is a challenge to remove.

There are various questions that arise, not least the assumption that the levels of radioactivity from tritium will be significantly reduced by 1/40th of regulatory standards through the use of seawater.

As has been pointed out by scientists Ken Buesseler, Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress and Antony M. Hooker there are also non-tritium radionuclides that are “generally of greater health concern as evidenced by their much higher dose coefficient — a measure of the dose, or potential human health impacts associated with a given radioactive element, relative to its measured concentration, or radioactivity level”.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) effectively condones the plan saying on July 4 that Japan’s decision is consistent with international safety standards.

IAEA General Rafael Mariano Grossi said: “The IAEA notes the controlled, gradual discharges of the treated water into the sea, as currently planned and assessed by TEPCO, would have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment.”

But a number of countries are concerned at the planned move, including concern that the IAEA may have been lent upon to reach its conclusions on the Japanese release program. Tokyo is, after all, a generous donor to the organisation.

For his part, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno huffed at the claim that “Japanese funding and staffing at the IAEA [could be used] to question the neutrality of the IAEA final report”.

Not only did such criticism “completely miss the target but also shakes the significance of the existence of international organisations.”

Japan’s fisherfolk and farmers, China, South Korea and the Pacific Island nations are concerned about the fate of the Blue Pacific and have been vocal opponents.

China’s Foreign Ministry opined that the IAEA report had been released in “haste”, failing “to fully reflect the views from experts that participated in the review”.

Some in the nuclear-environmental industry are wondering what the fuss is all about, although their rebuttals do not inspire optimism.

The University of Portsmouth’s Jim Smith believes all the concerns are “just propaganda” and that “politicians don’t have any evidence in saying this”. He said other tritiated water had been released at other sites, including a nuclear site in China and the Cap de La Hague nuclear fuel reprocessing site which already “releases 450 times more tritiated water into the English Channel Fukushima has planned for release into the Pacific”.

What examples to emulate.

Nigel Marks, Brendan Kennedy and Tony Irwin also told us, based on their “collective professional experience in nuclear science and nuclear power” that the release will be safe.

Their primary focus is however solely on the treatment of tritium, based on an almost heroic assumption that 62 other relevant radionuclides higher than regulatory standards have been removed by the ALPS approach.

They dismiss “old phobias” of radiation. “Almost everything is radioactive to some degree, including air, water, plants, basements and granite benchtops. Even a long-haul airline flight supplies a few chest X-rays worth of radiation to everyone on board.”

Continuing their focus on tritium, the trio said the Pacific Ocean already has 8.4 kilograms (3000 petabecquerels or PBq) of the substance, compared to 3 grams (1PBq) of the total tritium present in the Fukushima wastewater.

Such views serve to soften and conceal the broader problems of institutional malfeasance and past secrecy, citing the argument of “sound science” to conceal error and incompetence.

The discharge plans have also been sold in technical, jargon-laden terms, notably to the Pacific Islands Forum.

Adding to the clandestine air that has surrounded TEPCO, scepticism should not only be mandatory, but instinctive.

Why not ask such voices as Hooker and Buesseler to consider other disposal methodologies, such as solidifying the ALPS-treated wastewater within concrete?

Japanese authorities counter this, citing insuperable technical and legal problems.

That remains the troubling question. As Dalnoki-Veress wrote, Japan’s claim to have investigated and rejected that encasement option in any comprehensive, systematic way should be dismissed. “One way it is different is that it suggested using diluted water rather than ALPS treated water which will be 2 orders of magnitude less in volume.”

How cheeky of them.

[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.