Opinions

U.S. must urge Japan not to release Fukushima wastewater into the sea

The Japanese government recently announced that it intends to release more than 1.2 million tons of radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the North Pacific, resulting in dangerous radionuclides flowing across the ocean to Russia, Alaska, Canada, Hawaii and the U.S. west coast. The planned release, which is strongly opposed by local fishermen, scientists and coastal residents in Japan, would begin in two years and continue for another 40 years.

The Biden administration must urge Japan to abandon this unnecessary and dangerous plan.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster was caused by the 9.1-magnitude Tohoku earthquake and the 14-meter tsunami on March 11, 2011. The tsunami flooded and disabled emergency generators needed to pump cooling water into the nuclear reactor cores, causing three reactor core meltdowns and hydrogen explosions. Fukushima was the most dangerous nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. Fukushima radionuclides flowed eastward across the Pacific and were eventually detected in waters off California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. We all live downstream.

The storage tanks at Fukushima now hold seawater that has been used to continue cooling the reactor cores, and this water is contaminated with such radionuclides as cesium-137, carbon-14, tritium (some of which will form the more dangerous “organically bound tritium”), strontium-90, cobalt-60, iodine-129, plutonium-239, and more than 50 other hazardous radionuclides. Some of this has reportedly been removed, but some has not — e.g., radioactive tritium, strontium-90, and C-14.

The Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, which owns Fukushima and is now responsible for the cleanup — which is likely to last the remainder of this century — didn’t admit until recently that the wastewater contains significant amounts of radioactive carbon-14. As C-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years, and is known to bioaccumulate in marine ecosystems and cause cellular and genetic impairment, this is a very serious concern. Fukushima C-14 will be added to the already elevated radioactive C-14 load in the oceans from nuclear weapons tests — “bomb carbon” — last century, now found in organisms even in the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianas Trench.

It is easy to imagine the impact this new, intentional Fukushima release could have, rightly or not, on the public image of clean marine seafood and tourism along the Pacific coast.

TEPCO claims the water has been sufficiently treated and is OK to release, but the treatment system they are using — the “Advanced Liquid Processing System” — is substandard and not up to the job. TEPCO recently conceded that it now has to reprocess more than 800,000 tons of the water that had been already “treated” by its inadequate system. Communities across the Pacific deserve an independent scientific assessment of TEPCO’s claims. Remember, TEPCO and the Japanese government concluded there was little risk in locating the nuclear power plant’s emergency generators in a tsunami flood zone. Their assurances now that there is little risk in releasing this radioactive water are neither credible nor scientifically defensible.

China and South Korea have registered objections to the marine discharge plan with Japan; Russia and Canada have remained quiet, and stunningly, the U.S just announced it supports the plan. It isn’t often that China expresses more concern for the environment than the U.S., but this seems one such time.

And even if the ecological and public health risk from the planned release is indeed low, as claimed — this is highly doubtful — the risk is entirely unnecessary and avoidable.

Beyond marine discharge, several other disposal options have been considered, including evaporating the water, or injecting it into deep geologic formations.

But by far the best solution is for TEPCO to build more storage tanks and continue holding all contaminated water for another 15 years or so, during which time the radioactive tritium level will decay by half, and simultaneously treat it with best-available technology — such as ion exchange systems and modular “detritiation” systems in the U.S. — to remove all radionuclides possible. Japan and TEPCO considered this long-term storage option, but opted instead for the cheapest choice — simply dumping the wastewater into the Pacific.

The era of intentionally dumping toxic waste in our one global ocean is, or should be, over.

And as TEPCO and the government of Japan are no longer credible sources of information on Fukushima, the international community should appoint an Independent Scientific and Technical Commission — independent from the International Atomic Energy Agency — to review all information about the Fukushima cleanup, including the wastewater problem, and offer transparent, independent scientific and technical advice.

Fukushima was and continues to be an historic nuclear nightmare, and all nations should join together in a collaborative effort to resolve this mess. This effort will take hundreds of billions of dollars, over many decades, and the U.S. and other G-20 nations must step up and help both financially and technically.

Concerned citizens should press the Biden administration to register its immediate objection to this planned release of radioactive water, and to offer U.S. financial and technical assistance in effectively treating the wastewater and cleaning the disaster site. This is our national interest.

Unless and until this wastewater is independently certified as effectively free of radionuclides and safe, not one drop should be released into the beautiful deep blue Pacific.

Finally, Fukushima should be the last nail in the coffin for the notion that nuclear fission power could be a realistic solution to our climate crisis.

Rick Steiner is a marine conservation biologist in Anchorage and former professor of marine conservation with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010, when he resigned in protest of the university’s restrictions on his academic freedom; he now consults for the U.N., governments, and NGOs on marine environmental issues.

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