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Fukushima wastewater - unwise to create more problems

This is the last in a series of articles to highlight the possible effects of, and concerns over, Japan's decision to discharge radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. ― ED.

'Double, double toil and trouble': 'Macbeth' by Shakespeare

By Christine Loh

Treating complex problems as technical matters seldom works. There is no one clear answer as technical information is understood and questioned from different perspectives.

Christine Loh, chief development strategist at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's Institute for the Environment
Christine Loh, chief development strategist at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's Institute for the Environment
At issue is how Japan should deal with the 1.25 million tons of wastewater contaminated by the meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, wrecked by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Japan's proposed solution, announced on April 13, is to gradually release the water into the Pacific Ocean. The release could start in two years and might take 30 to 40 years to complete. Japan said the wastewater will have been treated and thus not harmful.

Is the release of the treated wastewater safe? A simple question, but the answer is not straightforward.

The nuclear industry view is that it is technically feasible and could be done according to international best practices, since there are standard procedures for nuclear plants all over the world to release wastewater from time to time.

The complication is that the multi-filtration treatment system to be constructed, called the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), does not remove all radionuclides, and there will still be trace amounts, including tritium, in the water.

Japan's plan includes the dilution of the filtrated wastewater before release. In the case of tritium, dilution would reduce its concentration to one 40th of what Japan allows in its drinking water. In other words, the remaining radionuclides should be at a safe level when sufficiently diluted.

This view is supported by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA).

However, special rapporteurs ― independent U.N. experts ― on toxic substances, food, human rights and the environment have expressed concerns about the marine environment and the rights of others.

Their views are similar to those of environmental scientists, green groups and fishermen.

Scientists who look at environmental impacts more broadly say trace radionuclides do not all behave in the same way. Once in the ocean, some are more readily incorporated into marine life that could eventually affect humans.

Experts also say there are gaps in understanding about the radioactive hazards of radionuclides, such as tritium, and their risks may have been underestimated. They call for a further evaluation, as tests have so far only been carried out on small volumes of water over short periods of time.

Fishermen have already suffered greatly from the meltdown of the nuclear reactors, which devastated the regional fishing industry for years.

The Pacific Ocean looks over nuclear reactor units of No. 3, left, and 4 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma town, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, in this Feb. 27 photo. AP-Yonhap
The Pacific Ocean looks over nuclear reactor units of No. 3, left, and 4 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma town, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, in this Feb. 27 photo. AP-Yonhap

Just as consumer confidence has returned, the industry fears the release of the wastewater will reignite fear about the safety of regional seafood and create another downturn in their livelihood.

Japan's neighbors have legitimate concerns about the potential trans-boundary harm from the wastewater release. South Korea, China and Russia reacted immediately to Japan's announcement, which takes the problem to the international level.

South Korea lodged a protest with Japan about the plan. China urged Japan to reexamine its decision and conduct full consultations. Russia demanded detailed explanations about all aspects of the plan.

Beyond diplomatic exchanges, there were also undiplomatic altercations.

China's foreign ministry spokesman said "the Pacific Ocean is not Japan's sewer," while South Korea is considering filing a law suit against Japan with the U.N.'s International Tribunal of Land and Sea.

Stepping into the fray, the U.S. supported Japan's position, which some believe to be a part of its overall geopolitical strategy to back Japan against China and Russia.

How might things evolve? The eventual implementation of Japan's plan is far from certain.

Firstly, Japanese voters may have doubts about the plan as domestic and international voices sound their objections. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will have to call an election in the not-too-distant future. He would want to make sure this issue is not going to affect his chances to win.

Secondly, Japan cannot become carbon neutral without having nuclear power in its electricity mix. Negative attention on nuclear energy may risk Japan's future energy policy.

Thirdly, experts and neighboring governments will continue to throw stones in the way, by calling for more details and transparency, further assessments of risks and damages, international consultations and even compensation.

Lastly, there is an alternative, at least until all the questions have been answered.

While the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owns the Fukushima nuclear plant, said it will run out of space to store additional wastewater by mid-2022, it is not inconceivable to build more tanks.

It is a lower price for Japan to pay than lose an election, derail its energy policy or cause an international punch-up with its neighbors.

It is undeniable Japan owns the Fukushima headache. It has taken years and billions of dollars to rectify the meltdown of the reactors, and it will take more time and resources to do a complete clean-up.

The wastewater is only one of the challenges. It does not make sense to create even more problems.

Christine Loh is chief development strategist at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's Institute for the Environment.




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