10 Million Tons of Treated Nuclear Wastewater To Be Released in the Ocean
A dozen years after the disastrous meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan this week started releasing a million tons of treated wastewater into the ocean.
Japan is asking the world for a lot of trust that complicated mechanics have filtered out radioactive waste from the stored waters from the nuclear plant and other contaminants from ground water.
Of course, what happens in Fukushima won’t stay in water off Fukushima; over the next 30 years, we’ll be hearing about the effects of this release from around the world.
That’s where the trust issue arises, since all accounts suggest that the discussion about what to release at what rate and under what supervision has been kept closely by Japanese officials without a lot of public discussion. Japanese fishermen, for example, are vocal in their upset about upset about anticipated effects on the biology of their fishing waters. Neighboring countries, including South Korea and China, are protesting, and China immediately barred Japanese seafood imports.
Anticipated effects range from the safest predictions of the Japanese government to the plots of Godzilla movies in which radioactive releases create imagined environmental monsters.
Wastewater from the plant, which melted down in 2011 after a massive earthquake and tsunami, has been stored in an. on-site farm of more than 1,000 giant steel tanks. The water will go through a powerful filtration system to remove radioactive elements and diluted further to reduce concentrations of tritium, a radioactive material that is difficult to separate from water. Treated water will be discharging the treated water at a maximum rate of 132,000 gallons per day through an underwater tunnel.
After its two-year review, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that Japan’s approach is “consistent with relevant international safety standards.” The IAEA will be monitoring the release process.
Safe or Unstudied?
So, this is either a necessary, but relatively safe sign of our troubled environmental times or a portend of disaster.
It builds on our global acceptance of wanton dumping of trash and plastic into our oceans with only passing guilt over the effect on aquatic life and on the continuing prioritization of the conveniences of modern life over maintain our global home.
In this case, the questions all have been asked, but the answers remain a matter of trust and belief.
To the Japanese insistence that they have run out of other alternatives, scientists note that facilities worldwide have carried out such releases within regulatory standards. But there are a stubborn number of scientists who say that there hasn’t been enough study of ocean effects.
Basically, although the IAEA concluded that gradual discharge of treated water would have a “negligible radiological impact” on people and the environment, no one quite knows what the cumulative effect of any radioactive material might have on generations of sea life that become part of the human food chain.
Proponents note that amount of tritium in the wastewater release is expected to be about seven times lower than the World Health Organization drinking water limit for tritium. People normally are exposed to tritium in small amounts in tap water and in rain.
If you catch fish for a living, you might be a bit worried about selling fish from these newly contaminated waters. We’re hearing that from Greenpeace East Asia, from fishing cooperatives and from the Chinese government, not usually aligned groups.
Indeed, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, which lately has been best known for its nationalistic view of open ocean traffic, suddenly found environmental humanity, saying the release is “selfish and irresponsible. The ocean sustains humanity. It is not a sewer for Japan’s nuclear-contaminated water.”
Azby Brown, a researcher for the environmental monitoring group Safecast, noted in a New York Times essay that the full release will take 30 years. He said the process has been neither fully transparent nor adequately inclusive in Japan and abroad. “This plants the seeds for what could be decades of mistrust and contention.”
More, he notes, Japan is setting a precedent of ocean dumping as construction of more nuclear plants has started anew.
The melted nuclear fuel debris inside Fukushima’s damaged reactors has been cooled by pumped water, which then is contaminated. The Japanese government consider other alternatives of releasing the water into the air as vapor or injecting it deep underground.
Tepco, owners of the Fukushima plan, said for years that its purification system would reduce 62 radionuclides to safe or non-detectable levels and that only traces of tritium. But in 2018, the company acknowledged that that 70 percent of the tanks also contained levels of other radioactive substances that were higher than legal limits. It was left to the IAEA to resolve outstanding environmental disputes.
That view of the ocean might be a good place to consider what we’re doing to ourselves.