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'It will take 300 years before contaminated water is safe to discharge into sea'

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Experts warn there is no safe threshold for radioactive exposure

By Kim Jae-heun

Nuclear experts from around the world are condemning the Japanese government's possible move to discharge radioactive water from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean.

The plan is raising concerns especially in Korea, Japan's closest neighbor, as the discharged water will have a direct influence on the marine life and ecosystem in its territorial waters and eventually the people themselves.

As of Aug. 22, about 1.1 million tons of contaminated water are being stored in 977 tanks at the power plant in Fukushima, which was destroyed by an earthquake and resultant tsunami in 2011. The Japanese government has said it will only build more facilities through 2020 and this will bring the total stored to 1.37 million tons.

By August 2020, all the storage facilities are projected to be filled and there will be no more tanks to hold the 170 tons of radiation contaminated water created every day.

Tokyo has remained quite on how it will cope with the radioactive water, not giving any clear answers to the international community. The possibility of discharging it into the sea was raised recently after Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist at the German branch of the environmental group Greenpeace, warned in August that Japan could dump over 1 million tons of radioactive waste into the Pacific.

Since then, Japanese government officials began to discuss the issue. They say almost all the radioactivity has been removed from the water except for tritium, claiming this metal is relatively nonhazardous ― something experts disagree with, noting it can cause cancer and fetal deformities.

Former Japanese Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada said in a recent interview that there was no other option but to dilute the contaminated water by pumping it into in the sea in order to dispose of it; although Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Harada's remarks were only his personal opinion and the government had not made any decision.

Burnie, however, says this was only the "cheapest" option.

"This is the principal reason. They do not want to pay the full costs of storing and processing the contaminated water, including removal of radioactive tritium," Burnie said during an email interview with The Korea Times. "For these reasons, in 2016, the Ministry of Economy Task Force on water turned down the options offered by various companies to develop tritium removal technology."

Kim Ik-jung, a former medical professor at Dongguk University who served as a member of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission here, agreed that discharging the contaminated water into the sea was the cheapest and fastest way to get rid of it, but at the same time it was also the most dangerous.

"There is another option to deal with radioactive water. Japan can keep it in the tanks until the radiation level becomes low enough. But this takes time and money. It will take about 300 years until it is okay to discharge the water," Kim said.

Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University in Japan, said he thinks the Japanese government will go ahead and discharge the radiation-contaminated water into the sea in the near future, and this must be stopped at all cost.

"Being exposed to radiation, even if it is a very small amount, is still dangerous. Nobody should discharge radiation into the environment including the ocean," Koide said.

According to a Greenpeace report released earlier this year, the Japanese government has reviewed five options to deal with the accumulating radioactive waste, and discharging it into the Pacific Ocean was considered the most reasonable as it would only cost 37.7 billion won, based on 2016 calculations by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The ministry also concluded that other options also entailed various risks.

Greenpeace Korea believes that if the Japanese government decides to discard the contaminated water, it will only do so after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

It argues that the Shinzo Abe administration will not court controversy while it has the world's full attention during the Games scheduled between July 24 and Aug. 9.

"The Japanese government cannot just discard radioactive waste at its own discretion. It is watching how other countries are reacting to its hints that it could discharge the contaminated water into the ocean. That's why the former Japanese environment minister made such remarks on the day he retired," a Greenpeace Korea official said.

Concerns over Tokyo Olympics amid radiation issue

The Japanese government's plan to dump contaminated wastewater is not the only issue related to Fukushima.

In less than a year, Japan will hold one of the world's biggest sporting events, and nuclear experts around the world have expressed concerns that participating athletes could be exposed to radiation.

Koide says Olympic committees from all over the world should decide to boycott the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Last year, the scholar sent a document to Olympic committee members worldwide, warning of the radiation danger athletes and visitors will face.

In the letter, Koide questioned Japan's suitability as the host of a worldwide event like the Olympics, and the country's capability to take strict safety measures necessary to protect athletes and other visitors.

The professor further explained that the resultant radioactive materials leak from the explosion at the Fukushima plant in 2011 is still affecting "an area whose vastness has not been precisely determined yet."

"Seven years have passed and the situation has not improved at all. As an honorable and honest citizen of Japan, I am asking you to reconsider your country's participation in the Olympic Games that will take place in Tokyo in 2020," he wrote in a letter sent in October 2018.

Burnie sided with Koide by saying that the Japanese government was being dishonest in the way it was using the Olympics to communicate with the world and its citizen that there has been a full recovery from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and there are no radiation risks.

"The reality of Fukushima Prefecture is highly complex with many citizens living in areas with low radiation risks ― at the same time there are areas in Fukushima, such as Namie and Iitate, where radiation risks are high, and tens of thousands of citizens remain displaced as evacuees," Burnie said.

The Japanese government also announced that it would host baseball games and softball games in Fukushima, while providing food made from ingredients grown in the region.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe ate a rice ball made with crops grown there to demonstrate that the food was safe, but many criticized that this was a dangerous act.

"I don't know if Abe ate it because he really thought it was safe or just for show. But it was a really dangerous act. Whatever is affected by radiation is dangerous without question," Kim said.

"According to textbooks, if a person is exposed to radiation, be it internal or external, he or she is highly likely to develop cancer or hereditary disorders. Heart disease is also a common result."

Korean government's response

The Korean government is alarmed by the possible discharge of contaminated water, but is unable to strongly request the Japanese government not to do so, because the latter keeps saying it has yet to make a decision about how it will dispose of the water.

In mid-August, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked the Japanese government to state its official stance on the issue. Environment Minister Cho Myung-rae said on social media Sunday, "We've asked the Japanese government to share material about how it is coping with the contaminated water from Fukushima, but it has avoided giving answers. It should take responsibility as a member of the international community by sharing information with its neighboring countries and holding sufficient talks with them."

The government also called on international society at a general meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, Monday, to take collective action against the possibility of Japan discharging the water into the ocean.

Mun Mi-ock, the first vice minister of science and ICT, said in a keynote speech that Japan has failed to find an answer to the disposal of the radioactive waste since the meltdown at the Fukushima plant in March 2011.

"It is an important international issue that can affect the marine environment of the whole world, so the IAEA and its members need to take joint action," Moon said.

The IAEA has no right to regulate a particular country, but the government believes public opinion formed against Japan could prevent it from dumping the radioactive water into the ocean as it counts 171 countries as members.

Kim Jae-heun

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