Fukushima & the Prolonged Aftermath

A decade after one of the worst disasters in the world, ranked second after the Chernobyl disaster, the Fukushima Nuclear Plant Disaster was a disheartening event for the citizens of Japan and the world. The tsunami which led to the disruption of the nuclear reactors was brought by an earthquake, which measured 9.0 magnitude on the scale, and which was also one of the worst earthquakes in the history of Japan.

Around 1.25 million tonnes of water has accumulated in tanks at the nuclear plant, which was crippled after going into meltdown following the tsunami in 2011. It includes water used to cool the plant, as well as rain and groundwater that seeps in daily. The very basic question as to why was so much water was stored in the first place? A befitting answer would be, that the interim storage facilities provide an appropriate environment to contain and manage existing waste, and the decay of heat and radioactivity over time provides a strong incentive to store High-Level Waste for a period before its final disposal.

"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the Japanese government said in a statement released when relevant ministers formalized the decision. Japan's government argues that the discharge is going to be safe because the water is processed to get rid of almost all radioactive elements and can be diluted. It has support from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which says the release is like the processes for releasing the wastewater from nuclear plants elsewhere in the world. Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told a ministerial meeting that discharging the water was an "inevitable task" in the decades-long process of decommissioning the nuclear plant. He said that the release would happen only "after ensuring the safety levels of the water" and consider measures to "prevent reputational damage".

An extensive pumping and filtration system called ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System) extract tonnes of newly contaminated water each day and filters out most radioactive elements. Local fishing communities fear releasing the water will undermine years of work to restore confidence in seafood from the region. "They told us that they would not release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen, we can not back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally.” Kanji Tachiya, who heads a local fishery cooperative in Fukushima, said ahead of the announcement.

The decision comes about three months ahead of the postponed Olympic Games to be hosted by Tokyo, with a few events planned as close as 60 km from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. The decision also prompted regional opposition with South Korea's foreign minister on Monday expressing "serious regret". Chinese foreign ministry urged the Japanese authorities to "act responsibly". "To safeguard international public interests and Chinese people's health and safety”, China has expressed grave concern to the Japanese side through the diplomatic channel.

The disposal of contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, run by Tokyo Electric Power, has proved a thorny problem for Japan as it pursues a decades-long decommissioning project. Around 140 cubic meters (5,000 cubic feet) of radioactive water was generated by the site every day in 2020 and storage space will run out by summer 2022. The debate over how to handle the water has dragged on for years, with the government saying it wanted to win support from local communities and secure backing from the IAEA. A government panel earlier endorsed either diluting the treated water and releasing it into the ocean or releasing it as vapour, and the IAEA says either option is acceptable. "Releasing into the ocean is done everywhere. It's not something new. There is no scandal here," IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said last year. Either method would be "in line with well-established practices all around the world", he added.

Anti-nuclear activist group, Greenpeace, expressed discontent over the decision of the Japanese government for having "once again failed the people of Fukushima". "The cabinet's decision failed to protect the environment and neglected the large-scale opposition and concerns of the local Fukushima residents, as well as the neighbouring citizens around Japan," said climate and energy campaigner Kazue Suzuki in a statement. The ALPS filtration process removes most radioactive elements from the water, but some remain, including tritium.

Experts say the element is merely harmful to humans in high doses and with dilution the treated water poses no scientifically detectable risk. The radioactivity of nuclear waste naturally decays and contains a finite radiotoxic time. Within 1,000-10,000 years, the radiation of HLW decays to that of the originally mined ore. Its hazard then depends on how concentrated it is. By comparison, alternative industrial wastes (e.g. heavy metals, like cadmium and mercury) remain hazardous indefinitely. International conventions outline what is hazardous and risky in terms of radiation dose, and national regulations limit allowable doses. Well-developed industry technology ensures that these rules are met so that any hazardous waste is handled in a way it poses no risk to human health or the environment. Waste is transformed into a stable form that is appropriate for disposal. In the case of HLW, a multi-barrier approach, combining containment and geological disposal, ensures isolation of the waste from the population and the environment for thousands of years.

It will certainly be wrong to state that the water being released will not affect the environmental situation of Japan. However, as IAEA and the government have established consent on the release, that means they have figured the situation out. Besides, if the water remains stored it may cause much larger damage and deterioration of the surroundings, in comparison to the release. However, the local fishing communities must be satisfied and given alternatives for their occupation because they are at a prime risk of losing their livelihood. The solution is a win-win situation for the environment and its people.

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