Japan in Hot Water Over Nuclear Wastewater

Region greets Japan’s plans to dump nuclear wastewater with skepticism

Japan’s TEPCO promises that its ALPS process will purify Fukushima wastewaterhttps://www.tepco.co.jp/en/decommision/planaction/images/disposal_05.jpg
  • Japanese power company TEPCO announced plans to dump 1.25 million tons of wastewater used as coolant for the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
  • TEPCO says that it has filtered all the radioactive isotopes from the water except for relatively harmless tritium.
  • Critics say that TEPCO is untrustworthy and cannot be relied on to effectively clean up the water.
  • Taiwan is seeking to join the international effort to monitor TEPCO’s efforts.

Ten years on the shadow of the Fukushima disaster still looms large over the region and the global nuclear sector. Although caused by the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, a Japanese government inquiry concluded that the disaster was “profoundly manmade,” the result of “a multitude of errors and willful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events.” Now the company that owns and operates the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO), has announced its plans to release some 1.25 million tons of contaminated seawater used to cool the melted reactor cores directly into the ocean. TEPCO says that the 62 of 63 radioactive isotopes have been removed from the water, including dangerous and long-lasting strontium 90, cesium 137 and 134, and cobalt 168.  The remaining isotope, tritium, cannot be filtered from the water but is largely benign, with little impact on human health or the environment.

The plan, which has obtained approval by the Japanese government and at least tacit support of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was announced on April 12 and was instantly met with outrage within Japan and the surrounding countries. China condemned the move while South Korea called for further investigation. The issue has become political fodder in Taiwan, with critics accusing the government of sacrificing human values for closer ties to Japan. Environmentalists and fishing associations in Japan and the surrounding region condemn the move, claiming it will ruin Fukushima’s natural environment and its beleaguered agriculture and fisheries sector.

The plan is scientifically valid, however, according to scientists.  An IAEA statement notes that sea-disposal of the wastewater is “both technically feasible and in line with international practice.” adding that controlled water discharges into the sea are routinely used by other nuclear power plants.

TEPCO is using an extensive processing and filtration system known as ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System) that both cools the remaining residual heat at the melted cores of units 1,2, and 3 at Fukushima Daiichi, but also filters out most of the radioactive elements.  According to National Tsing-Hua University professor of nuclear engineering and science Yeh Tsung-Kuang, the ALPS system is quite effective in filtering out radioactive isotopes, and the remaining isotope, tritium, which forms from water molecules in a nuclear reaction, emits beta radiation that can easily be shielded by human skin, and only presents even a minimal hazard when ingested.

“It’s very low energy, and for it to present a health risk you would need to drink the amount of water equal or greater to your body weight all at once,” he said in an interview on April 20.

According to TEPCO, the wastewater will be diluted to 1500 becquerels (Bq) per liter, https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/basic-ref/glossary/becquerel-bq.html per liter, one seventh the limit set by the WHO of 10,000Bq per liter.

 But Yeh even offers a caveat: “there is no third-party verification of the process or results” and that obtaining the trust of the public will be difficult.

“TEPCO has consistently lied about nuclear safety and downplayed the Fukushima disaster,” wrote Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan and a frequent critic of TEPCO, in an email. “As a result, it does not enjoy public confidence.”

Kingston cites numerous safety lapses in TEPCO’s nuclear power operations that the utility has tried to cover up. A recent article in the Daily Beast by acclaimed writer Jake Adelstein observed that Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority rejected TEPCO’s plan for restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Niigata due to safety concerns and security lapses. Kingston added that TEPCO had already declared the wastewater at Fukushima safe in 2018 before backtracking and redoing the process, reinforcing public skepticism.

The issue will further tarnish the already beleaguered Fukushima brand of seafood and produce, Kingston also noted.  

“TEPCO and the government have not been effective at convincingly addressing public health concerns due to a lack of transparency,” he wrote.

TEPCO reportedly considered several other options, including evaporation, subsurface injection, burial in barrels, and gasification. All were considered either too expensive, impractical, or having an even larger global impact than sea disposal. The ocean disposal won’t begin for at least another two years.

The IAEA is forming a committee to investigate and monitor TEPCO’s efforts at filtering the water, and Taiwan is aiming to participate.

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