Radioactive water at Fukushima should be stored not dumped — Beyond Nuclear International

” Last week, Japan’s then environment minister, Yoshiaki Harada, made news with a pronouncement that wasn’t news. The storage tanks at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site, filled with radioactive water, were reaching capacity. By 2022 there would be no room for more tanks on the present site. Japan would then have to dump the radioactive water stored in the tanks into the Pacific Ocean, he said.

Although likely unrelated to those remarks, a day later, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dispatched 19 of his cabinet ministers, including Harada. Harada was replaced as environment minister by rising star, Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of former primer minister, Junichiro Koizumi. Both father and son are opposed to nuclear energy, and on his first day in office, the younger Koizumi told reporters that he believed Japan should end its use of nuclear energy and close its nuclear power plants.

“I would like to study how we scrap them, not how to retain them,” Reuters reported him saying. This is a surprising position from someone inside the fervently pro-nuclear Abe government and it remains to be seen whether he will be allowed to translate his position into policy.

Dumping Fukushima Daiichi’s accumulated radioactive water has long been the plan proposed by Tepco, the site owner. Fukushima fishermen, along with some scientists and a number of NGOs from around the world, continue to object.

Cooling water is needed at the Fukushima site because, when Units 1, 2 and 3 lost power, they also lost the flow of reactor coolant, causing their cores to overheat. The fuel rods then melted, and molten fuel dripped down and burned through the pressure vessels, pooling in the primary containment vessels. Units 1, 3 and 4 also suffered hydrogen explosions. Each day, about 200 metric tons of cooling water is used to keep the three melted cores cool, lest they once more go critical. Eventually the water becomes too radioactive and thermally hot to be re-used, and must be discarded and stored in the tanks.

As Greenpeace International (GPI) explained in remarks and questions submitted during a consultative meeting held by the International Maritime Organization in August 2019:

“Since 2011, in order to cool the molten cores in the Tokyo Electric Power Company Fukushima Daiichi reactor units 1-3, water is continuously pumped through the damaged Reactor Pressure Vessels (RPVs) and circulated through reactor buildings, turbine buildings, the Process Main Building and the “High Temperature Incinerator Building”  and water treatment systems.

“As a result, the past eight years has seen a relentless increase in the volume of radioactive contaminated water accumulating on site. As of 4 July 2019, the total amount of contaminated water held in 939 storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant (units 1-4) was 1,145,694 m3 (tonnes). The majority of this, 1,041,710 m3, is contaminated processed water. In the year to April 2019, approximately 180 m3/day of water was being circulated into the RPVs of units 1-3.”

In addition to the cooling water, the tanks also house water that has run down from the nearby mountains, at a rate of about 100 tons each day. This water flows onto the site and seeps into the reactor buildings. There, it becomes radioactively contaminated and also must be collected and stored, to prevent it from flowing on down into the sea.

The water tank crisis is just one of multiple and complex problems at the Fukushima Daiichi site, including the eventual need to extract the molten fuel debris from inside the stricken reactors. Decommissioning cannot begin until the water storage tanks are removed.

Tepco has tried to mitigate the radioactive water problem in a number of ways. The infamous $320 million ice wall was an attempt to freeze and block inflow, but has had mixed results and has worked only intermittently. Wells were dug to try to divert the runoff water so it does not pick up contamination. The ice wall has reportedly reduced the flow of groundwater somewhat, but only down from 500 tons a day to about 100 tons.

In anticipation of dumping the tank water into the Pacific Ocean, Tepco has deployed an Advanced Liquid Processing System that the company claims can remove 62 isotopes from the water — all except tritium, which is radioactive hydrogen and therefore cannot be filtered out of water. (Tritium is routinely discharged by operating commercial nuclear power plants).

But, like the ice wall, the filtration system has also been plagued by malfunctions. According to GPI, Tepco admitted only last year that the system had “failed to reduce radioactivity to levels below the regulatory limit permissible for ocean disposal” in at least 80% of the tanks’ inventory. Indeed, said GPI, “the levels of Strontium-90 are more than 100 times the regulatory standard according to TEPCO, with levels at 20,000 times above regulations in some tanks.”

The plan to dump the water has raised the ire of South Korea, whose fish stocks would likely also be contaminated. And it has introduced the question of whether such a move is a violation of The Conventions of the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as was raised in a joint written statement by the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and Greenpeace International, before the UN Human Rights Council currently in session.

So what else could or should Tepco do, if not dump the water offshore and into the ocean? A wide consensus amongst scientific, environmental and human rights groups is that on-site storage for the indefinite future is the only acceptable option, while research must continue into possible ways to extract all of the radioactive content, including tritium.

Meanwhile, a panel of experts says it will examine a number of additional but equally problematic choices, broadly condensed into four options (each with some variations — to  dilute or not to dilute etc):

  • Ground (geosphere) injection (which could bring the isotopes in contact with groundwater);
  • Vapor release (which could infiltrate weather patterns and return as fallout);
  • Releasing it as hydrogen (it would still contain tritium gas); and
  • Solidification followed by underground burial (for which no safe, permanent storage environment has yet been found, least of all in earthquake-prone Japan).

Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds, recommends a chemical injection processes (drilling mud) — also used by the oil industry — to stop the flow of water onto the site entirely. But he says Japan has never considered this option. GPI contends that Japan has never seriously researched any of the alternatives, sticking to the ocean dumping plan, the cheapest and fastest “fix.”

All of this mess is of course an inevitable outcome of the choice to use nuclear power in the first place. Even without an accident, no safe, permanent storage solution has been found for the high-level radioactive waste produced through daily operation of commercial nuclear power plants, never mind as the result of an accident.

According to Dr. M.V. Ramana, by far the best solution is to continue to store the radioactive water, even if that means moving some of the storage tanks to other locations to make more room for new ones at the nuclear site. The decision to dump the water, Ramana says, is in line with Abe’s attempts to whitewash the scene before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and claim, as he has publicly in the past, that everything at Fukushima is “under control.” (Baseball and softball games will be played in Fukushima Prefecture and the torch relay will start there, all in an effort to pretend there are no dangerous nuclear after-effects remaining in the area.)

“The reason that they keep saying they need to release it is because they might have to move some of this offsite and that goes against the Abe government’s interest in creating the perception that Fukushima is a closed chapter,” Ramana wrote in an email. “So it is a political decision rather than a technical one.”

As with all things nuclear, there are diverging views on the likely impact to the marine environment and to human health, from dumping Fukushima’s radioactive water into the ocean. These run the gamut from “a little tritium won’t hurt you” to “the Pacific Ocean is dead thanks to Fukushima” — both of which are wildly untrue. (Tritium can bind organically inside the body, irradiating that person or animal from within. The many problems in the Pacific began long before Fukushima and are likely caused by numerous compounding factors, including warming and pollution, with Fukushima adding to the existing woes.)

What is fact, however, is that scientists have found not only the presence of isotopes such as cesium in fish they tested, but also in ocean floor sediment. This latter has the potential to serve as a more long-term source of contamination up the food chain.

But it is also important to remember that if this radioactive water is dumped, it is not an isolated event. Radioactive contamination in our oceans is already widespread, a result of years of atmospheric atomic tests. As was reported earlier this year, scientists studying deep-sea amphipods, retrieved from some of the deepest trenches in the ocean — including the Mariana Trench which reaches 36,000 feet below sea-level and is deeper than Mount Everest is high — detected elevated levels of carbon-14 in these creatures.

“The levels closely matched abundances found near the surface of the ocean, where the amount of carbon-14 is higher than usual thanks to nuclear bomb tests conducted more than half a century ago,” reported Smithsonian Magazine.

Weidong Sun, co-author of the resulting study, told Smithsonian Magazine that “Biologically, [ocean] trenches are taken to be the most pristine habitats on Earth”.

How chilling, then, to realize that our radioactive irresponsibility has reached the lowest depths, affecting creatures far removed from our rash behaviors.

Consequently, the decision by the Japanese government to release yet more radioactive contamination into our oceans must be viewed not as a one-off act of desperation, but as a contribution to cumulative contamination. This, added to the twin tragedies of climate crisis-induced ocean warming and plastics and chemicals pollution, renders it one more crime committed on the oceans, ourselves and all living things. And it reinforces the imperative to neither continue nor increase our reckless use of nuclear power as an electricity source. ”

by Linda Pentz Gunter, Beyond Nuclear International

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Fukushima’a other big problem: A Million tons of radioactive water — Wired

” The tsunami-driven seawater that engulfed Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has long since receded. But plant officials are still struggling to cope with another dangerous flood: the enormous amounts of radioactive water the crippled facility generates each day. More than 1 million tons of radiation-laced water is already being kept on-site in an ever-expanding forest of hundreds of hulking steel tanks—and so far, there’s no plan to deal with them.

The earthquake and tsunami that hammered Fukushima on March 11, 2011 triggered meltdowns in three of its six reactors. That left messes of intensely radioactive fuel somewhere loose in the reactor buildings—though no one knows exactly where. What is known, however, is that every day, as much as much as 150 tons of groundwater percolates into the reactors through cracks in their foundations, becoming contaminated with radioactive isotopes in the process.

To keep that water from leaking into the ground or the Pacific, Tepco, the giant utility that owns the plant, pumps it out and runs it through a massive filtering system housed in a building the size of a small aircraft hangar. Inside are arrays of seven-foot tall stainless steel tubes, filled with sand grain-like particles that perform a process called ion exchange. The particles grab on to ions of cesium, strontium, and other dangerous isotopes in the water, making room for them by spitting out sodium. The highly toxic sludge created as a byproduct is stored elsewhere on the site in thousands of sealed canisters.

This technology has improved since the catastrophe. The first filtering systems, installed just weeks after the disaster by California-based Kurion Inc. (which has since been bought by Veolia, a French resource management company), only caught cesium, a strong gamma radiation emitter that makes it the most dangerous of the isotopes in the water. The tubes in those arrays were filled with highly modified grains of naturally occurring volcanic minerals called zeolites. By 2013, the company developed entirely artificial particles—a form of titano silicate—that also grab strontium.

The filters, however, don’t catch tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. That’s a much trickier task. Cesium and strontium atoms go into solution with the water, like sugar in tea; but tritium can bond with oxygen just like regular hydrogen, rendering the water molecules themselves radioactive. “It’s one thing to separate cesium from water, but how do you separate water from water?” asks John Raymont, Kurion’s founder and now president of Veolia’s nuclear solutions group. The company claims to have developed a system that can do the job, but Tepco has so far balked at the multi-billion dollar cost.

So for now, the tritiated water is pumped into a steadily growing collection of tanks. There are already hundreds of them, and Tepco has to start building a new one every four days.

Tepco has at least reduced the water’s inflow. As much as 400 tons per day was gushing in just a couple of years ago. In an effort to keep the groundwater from getting in, Tepco has built a network of pumps, and in 2016 installed an underground “ice wall”—a $300 million subterranean fence of 30-yard-long rods through which tons of sub-zero brine is pumped, freezing the surrounding earth. All of which helps, but hasn’t solved the problem.

Tritium is far less dangerous than cesium—it emits a weaker, lower-energy form of radiation. Still, all that tritiated water can’t just be stored indefinitely. “Some of those tanks and pipes will eventually fail. It’s inevitable,” says Dale Klein, a former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission who has been consulting with Tepco since the early days following the disaster. (In fact, hundreds of tons of water leaked out of the tanks in 2013 and 2014, sparking an international outcry. Tepco has since improved their design.)

Klein, among others, believes that the concentrations of tritium are low enough that the water can safely be released into the sea. “They should dilute and dispose of it,” he says. “It would be better to have a controlled release than an accidental one.”

But the notion of dumping tons of radioactive water into the ocean is understandably a tough sell. Whatever faith the Japanese public had left in Tepco took a further beating in the first couple of years after the meltdowns, when several investigations forced the company to acknowledge they had underreported the amount of radiation released during and after the disaster. Japan’s fishing industry raises a ruckus whenever the idea of dumping the tritiated water is broached; they already have to contend with import restrictions imposed by neighboring countries worried about eating contaminated fish. Japan’s neighbors including China, Korea, and Taiwan have also objected.

For now, all Tepco can do is keep building tanks, and hope that someone comes up with a solution before they run out of room—or the next earthquake hits. “

by Vince Beiser, Wired

source with internal links and photo

Regulator urges Tepco to release treated radioactive water from damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant into the sea — The Japan Times

” A decision should be made sometime this year over whether to release into the sea water containing radioactive tritium from the crisis-hit Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the chief of Japan’s nuclear regulator said Thursday, emphasizing it would pose no danger to human health.

“We will face a new challenge if a decision (about the release) is not made this year,” Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa told Naraha Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto, referring to the more than 1 million tons of coolant water and groundwater that has accumulated at the crippled facility. Naraha is located close to the Fukushima No.1 plant.

Fuketa said releasing the water into the sea after dilution is the only solution, saying “it is scientifically clear that there will be no impact on marine products or to the environment.”

Currently, Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. regularly filters contaminated coolant water and ground water from the damaged plant. The processed water is stored in hundreds of water tanks set up within the plant’s compound.

Dangerous radioactive materials are removed during filtration, but tritium — which is difficult to separate from water but relatively harmless to human health — remains.

“(Tepco) has been building new tanks, but it will eventually run out of land,” an NRA official later told The Japan Times.

With limited storage space for water tanks, observers warn that tritium could start leaking from the Fukushima plant.

The nuclear regulator’s chief underlined the need for the government and Tepco to make a decision quickly, saying, “It will take two or three years to prepare for the water’s release into the sea.”

At other nuclear power plants, water containing tritium is routinely dumped into the sea after it is diluted. The regulator has been calling for the release of the water after diluting it to a density lower than standards set by law.

According to the NRA, an average pressured-water reactor for commercial use in Japan usually dumps 60 trillion becquerels of tritium a year into the sea.

Local fishermen are, however, worried about the negative impact from the water discharge — in particular the effect of groundless rumors regarding the safety of marine life near the Fukushima plant. In the face of their opposition, Tepco has not yet reached a decision on how to deal with the stored water.

At the Fukushima plant contaminated water is building up partly because groundwater is seeping into the reactor buildings and mixing with water that has been made radioactive in the process of cooling the damaged reactors.

According to the NRA, there were 650 water tanks within the compound at the Fukushima No. 1 plant as of last month.

The density of tritium in the water ranges from 1 million to 5 million becquerels per liter. Legal restrictions require a nuclear power plant to dump tritium-tainted water after diluting it to 60,000 becquerels per liter, according to the NRA.

On March 11, 2011, tsunami inundated the six-reactor plant, which is located on ground 10 meters above sea level, and flooded its power supply facilities.

Reactor cooling systems were crippled and the Nos. 1 to 3 reactors suffered fuel meltdowns in the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. ”

by Kyodo, The Japan Times

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*The Fukushima nuclear meltdown continues unabated – Helen Caldicott, Global Research News

Dr. Helen Caldicott really tells it how it is. No sugarcoating in this article, just the cold, hard facts.

” Recent reporting of a huge radiation measurement at Unit 2 in the Fukushima Daichi reactor complex does not signify that there is a peak in radiation in the reactor building.

All that it indicates is that, for the first time, the Japanese have been able to measure the intense radiation given off by the molten fuel, as each previous attempt has led to failure because the radiation is so intense the robotic parts were functionally destroyed.

The radiation measurement was 530 sieverts, or 53,000 rems (Roentgen Equivalent for Man). The dose at which half an exposed population would die is 250 to 500 rems, so this is a massive measurement. It is quite likely had the robot been able to penetrate deeper into the inner cavern containing the molten corium, the measurement would have been much greater.

These facts illustrate why it will be almost impossible to “decommission” units 1, 2 and 3 as no human could ever be exposed to such extreme radiation. This fact means that Fukushima Daichi will remain a diabolical blot upon Japan and the world for the rest of time, sitting as it does on active earthquake zones.

What the photos taken by the robot did reveal was that some of the structural supports of Unit 2 have been damaged. It is also true that all four buildings were structurally damaged by the original earthquake some five years ago and by the subsequent hydrogen explosions so, should there be an earthquake greater than seven on the Richter scale, it is very possible that one or more of these structures could collapse, leading to a massive release of radiation as the building fell on the molten core beneath. But units 1, 2 and 3 also contain cooling pools with very radioactive fuel rods — numbering 392 in Unit 1, 615 in Unit 2, and 566 in Unit 3; if an earthquake were to breach a pool, the gamma rays would be so intense that the site would have to be permanently evacuated. The fuel from Unit 4 and its cooling pool has been removed.

But there is more to fear.

The reactor complex was built adjacent to a mountain range and millions of gallons of water emanate from the mountains daily beneath the reactor complex, causing some of the earth below the reactor buildings to partially liquefy. As the water flows beneath the damaged reactors, it immerses the three molten cores and becomes extremely radioactive as it continues its journey into the adjacent Pacific Ocean.

Every day since the accident began, 300 to 400 tons of water has poured into the Pacific where numerous isotopes – including cesium 137, 134, strontium 90, tritium, plutonium, americium and up to 100 more – enter the ocean and bio-concentrate by orders of magnitude at each step of the food chain — algae, crustaceans, little fish, big fish then us.

Fish swim thousands of miles and tuna, salmon and other species found on the American west coast now contain some of these radioactive elements, which are tasteless, odourless and invisible. Entering the human body by ingestion they concentrate in various organs, irradiating adjacent cells for many years. The cancer cycle is initiated by a single mutation in a single regulatory gene in a single cell and the incubation time for cancer is any time from 2 to 90 years. And no cancer defines its origin.

We could be catching radioactive fish in Australia or the fish that are imported could contain radioactive isotopes, but unless they are consistently tested we will never know.

As well as the mountain water reaching the Pacific Ocean, since the accident, TEPCO has daily pumped over 300 tons of sea water into the damaged reactors to keep them cool. It becomes intensely radioactive and is pumped out again and stored in over 1,200 huge storage tanks scattered over the Daichi site. These tanks could not withstand a large earthquake and could rupture releasing their contents into the ocean.

But even if that does not happen, TEPCO is rapidly running out of storage space and is trying to convince the local fishermen that it would be okay to empty the tanks into the sea. The Bremsstrahlung radiation like x-rays given off by these tanks is quite high – measuring 10 milirems – presenting a danger to the workers. There are over 4,000 workers on site each day, many recruited by the Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia) and include men who are homeless, drug addicts and those who are mentally unstable.

There’s another problem. Because the molten cores are continuously generating hydrogen, which is explosive, TEPCO has been pumping nitrogen into the reactors to dilute the hydrogen dangers.

Vast areas of Japan are now contaminated, including some areas of Tokyo, which are so radioactive that roadside soil measuring 7,000 becquerels (bc) per kilo would qualify to be buried in a radioactive waste facility in the U.S..

As previously explained, these radioactive elements concentrate in the food chain. The Fukushima Prefecture has always been a food bowl for Japan and, although much of the rice, vegetables and fruit now grown here is radioactive, there is a big push to sell this food both in the Japanese market and overseas. Taiwan has banned the sale of Japanese food, but Australia and the U.S. have not.

Prime Minister Abe recently passed a law that any reporter who told the truth about the situation could be goaled for ten years. In addition, doctors who tell their patients their disease could be radiation related will not be paid, so there is an immense cover-up in Japan as well as the global media.

The Prefectural Oversite Committee for Fukushima Health is only looking at thyroid cancer among the population and by June 2016, 172 people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the accident have developed, or have suspected, thyroid cancer; the normal incidence in this population is 1 to 2 per million.

However, other cancers and leukemia that are caused by radiation are not being routinely documented, nor are congenital malformations, which were, and are, still rife among the exposed Chernobyl population.

Bottom line, these reactors will never be cleaned up nor decommissioned because such a task is not humanly possible. Hence, they will continue to pour water into the Pacific for the rest of time and threaten Japan and the northern hemisphere with massive releases of radiation should there be another large earthquake. ”

by Helen Caldicott, Global Research News, originally published in Independent Australia

source with internal links and photos

What to do with radioactive water from Fukushima — VOA Learning English

” Japanese officials are trying to decide what to do with thousands of tons of radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.

More than six years have passed since a powerful earthquake and tsunami severely damaged the power plant.

Some parts of cleanup efforts have gone well. People can now work in the area although they take special measures to avoid overexposure to radioactive substances.

The water remains a big problem however. Currently, the water is being stored in 900 large tanks near the nuclear center.

Conflicting opinions between two groups have kept Japanese officials from doing anything about the water.

Radiation experts advise the government to slowly release the water into the Pacific Ocean. They note that special treatment has removed the radioactivity from the water except for tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. The experts say tritium is safe in small amounts.

But local fishermen oppose the release of the water into the sea. They say people will not buy fish from waters near Fukushima if the water is released.

The fishermen lost their livelihoods for a long time after the disaster. Local fisheries are slowly recovering.

Fumio Haga fishes about 50 kilometers from the power plant. He said, “People would shun Fukushima fish again as soon the water is released.”

Fukushima disaster affected land and sea

The disaster was both deadly and had long-lasting environmental and economic effects.

An extremely powerful magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. The quake caused deadly tsunami waves on the country’s northeastern coast. More than 18,000 people were killed.

The earthquake and waves caused the electricity to go out in many places including Fukushima. As a result, the cooling system failed in three of the six nuclear reactors which caused the nuclear fuel to overheat and partly melt structures in the power plant.

Radiation entered the air and contaminated water flowed into the sea.

That event hurt the livelihoods of people throughout the area. Although there are about 1,000 fishermen in the area today, only half still fish and they go out only two times a week because demand is low.

To be sold, the fish have to meet, what might be, the world’s most demanding requirements. Laboratory workers at Onahama test the fishermen’s catch, recording who caught the fish and where. And fish from the area is sold with official “safe” stickers.

Fifteen months after the disaster in 2012, only three kinds of fish could pass the safety inspection. Now the number has increased to over 100.

Yoshiharu Nemoto is a researcher at the Onahama test station. He said the fish may contain less than half of the radioactive cesium level permitted under Japan’s national standard and one-twelfth of the U.S. or European Union limit.

But consumers have not heard that message.

Over the years, fewer Japanese consumers avoid fish products from waters near Fukushima. But a study by Japan’s Consumer Agency in October found that 20 percent still do. The study found that consumers were more likely to pay attention to information about possible bad health results than to facts about radiation and safety standards.

Naoya Sekiya is an expert on social research and social psychology. He said the water from the nuclear power center should not be released until the public is well-informed about the facts.

“A release only based on scientific safety, without addressing the public’s concerns, cannot be tolerated in a democratic society,” he said. He said a release when the public is not prepared would only make things worse.

Kikuko Tatsumi is a representative of a consumer group and serves on a government expert panel with Sekiya. The group has been trying to decide what to do with the water for longer than one year.

Tatsumi said the delay in making a decision may be increasing concerns among the public. Many people believe the water is stored because it is dangerous and they think Fukushima fish are not available because they are not safe to eat.

Water from the center is a continuing problem

The Associated Press reports the amount of radioactive water at Fukushima is growing by 150 tons a day. This is because new water is used to cool the damaged reactors and ground water also enters the reactor area through cracks.

The water is a costly problem for the utility company Tokyo Electric Power Co, or TEPCO, which owns Fukushima. Last year, another group of government experts recommended that TEPCO should dilute the water by about 50 times and release it into the sea over time. The process could take 10 years to complete.

The new chairman at TEPCO, Takashi Kawamura, caused a strong reaction in the fishing community in April. He had expressed support for releasing the water.

But after strong opposition, the company withdrew the idea and said it had no plans for an immediate release and can continue storing water until 2020.

So, the problem continues, and the amount of radioactive water at Fukushima is growing.

I’m Mario Ritter. ”

 Mari Yamaguchi reported this story for AP. Mario Ritter adapted it with additional materials for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor. 

source with photos

Japan still at a stalemate as Fukushima’s radioactive water grows by 150 tons a day — The Japan Times

” More than six years after a tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Japan has yet to reach consensus on what to do with a million tons of radioactive water, stored on site in around 900 large and densely packed tanks that could spill should another major earthquake or tsunami strike.

The stalemate is rooted in a fundamental conflict between science and human nature.

Experts advising the government have urged a gradual release to the Pacific Ocean. Treatment has removed all the radioactive elements except tritium, which they say is safe in small amounts. Conversely, if the tanks break, their contents could slosh out in an uncontrolled way.

Local fishermen are balking. The water, no matter how clean, has a dirty image for consumers, they say. Despite repeated tests showing most types of fish caught off Fukushima are safe to eat, diners remain hesitant. The fishermen fear any release would sound the death knell for their nascent and still fragile recovery.

“People would shun Fukushima fish again as soon as the water is released,” said Fumio Haga, a drag-net fisherman from Iwaki, a city about 50 kilometers (30 miles) down the coast from the nuclear plant.

And so the tanks remain.

Fall is high season for saury and flounder, among Fukushima’s signature fish. It was once a busy time of year when coastal fishermen were out every morning.

Then came March 11, 2011. A magnitude 9 offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people along the coast. The quake and massive flooding knocked out power for the cooling systems at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Three of the six reactors had partial meltdowns. Radiation spewed into the air, and highly contaminated water ran into the Pacific.

Today, only about half of the region’s 1,000 fishermen go out, and just twice a week because of reduced demand. They participate in a fish testing program.

Lab technicians mince fish samples at Onahama port in Iwaki, pack them in a cup for inspection and record details such as who caught the fish and where. Packaged fish sold at supermarkets carry official “safe” stickers.

Only three kinds of fish passed the test when the experiment began in mid-2012, 15 months after the tsunami. Over time, that number has increased to about 100.

The fish meet what is believed to be the world’s most stringent requirement: less than half the radioactive cesium level allowed under Japan’s national standard and one-twelfth of the U.S. or EU limit, said Yoshiharu Nemoto, a senior researcher at the Onahama testing station.

That message isn’t reaching consumers. A survey by the Consumer Affairs Agency in October found that nearly half of Japanese weren’t aware of the tests, and that consumers are more likely to focus on alarming information about possible health impacts in extreme cases, rather than facts about radiation and safety standards.

Fewer Japanese consumers shun fish and other foods from Fukushima than before, but 1 in 5 still do, according to the survey. The coastal catch of 2,000 tons last year was 8 percent of pre-disaster levels. The deep-sea catch was half of what it used to be, though scientists say there is no contamination risk that far out.

Naoya Sekiya, a University of Tokyo expert on disaster information and social psychology, said that the water from the nuclear plant shouldn’t be released until people are well-informed about the basic facts and psychologically ready.

“A release only based on scientific safety, without addressing the public’s concerns, cannot be tolerated in a democratic society,” he said. “A release when people are unprepared would only make things worse.”

He and consumer advocacy group representative Kikuko Tatsumi sit on a government expert panel that has been wrestling with the social impact of a release and what to do with the water for more than a year, with no sign of resolution.

Tatsumi said the stalemate may be further fueling public misconception: Many people believe the water is stored because it’s not safe to release, and they think Fukushima fish is not available because it’s not safe to eat.

The amount of radioactive water at Fukushima is still growing, by 150 tons a day.

The reactors are damaged beyond repair, but cooling water must be constantly pumped in to keep them from overheating. That water picks up radioactivity before leaking out of the damaged containment chambers and collecting in the basements.

There, the volume of contaminated water grows, because it mixes with groundwater that has seeped in through cracks in the reactor buildings. After treatment, 210 tons is reused as cooling water, and the remaining 150 tons is sent to tank storage. During heavy rains, the groundwater inflow increases significantly, adding to the volume.

The water is a costly headache for Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., the utility that owns the plant. To reduce the flow, it has dug dozens of wells to pump out groundwater before it reaches the reactor buildings and built an underground “ice wall” of questionable effectiveness by partially freezing the ground around the reactors.

Another government panel recommended last year that the utility, known as Tepco, dilute the water up to about 50 times and release about 400 tons daily to the sea — a process that would take almost a decade to complete. Experts note that the release of tritiated water is allowed at other nuclear plants.

Tritiated water from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States was evaporated, but the amount was much smaller, and still required 10 years of preparation and three more years to complete.

A new chairman at Tepco, Takashi Kawamura, caused an uproar in the fishing community in April when he expressed support for moving ahead with the release of the water.

The company quickly backpedaled, and now says it has no plans for an immediate release and can keep storing water through 2020. Tepco says the decision should be made by the government, because the public doesn’t trust the utility.

“Our recovery effort up until now would immediately collapse to zero if the water is released,” Iwaki abalone farmer Yuichi Manome said.

Some experts have proposed moving the tanks to an intermediate storage area, or delaying the release until at least 2023, when half the tritium that was present at the time of the disaster will have disappeared naturally. ”

by Mari Yamaguchi, The Japan Times

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