Not even Japan knows when it’ll be done dumping irradiated Fukushima water into ocean

Posted on : 2023-08-24 17:06 KST Modified on : 2023-08-24 17:06 KST
With 90 to 140 metric tons of new wastewater being generated each day, the end date of the release keeps being pushed back indefinitely
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. (Yonhap)
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. (Yonhap)

On Wednesday, one day before Japan began its release of the radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the ocean, Japanese news outlets noted the difficulty of predicting when the process will actually come to an end, putting forward various estimates ranging from 7.5 years to at least 30 years.

Never-ending fount of contaminated water

Concerns regarding whether Japan will adhere to its release plan are growing, as exactly when the process will end cannot even be predicted properly.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the South Korean government have stated that the discharge of the radioactive Fukushima water, “as currently planned and assessed by TEPCO,” would have “negligible radiological impact on people and the environment.”

Japan’s plan mainly consists of reducing all radioactive nuclides contained in the 1.34 million metric tons of wastewater stored at the Fukushima plant — all except tritium — to below the legal limit using the Advanced Liquid Processing System, diluting and releasing the treated water into the ocean in order to close down the nuclear plant for good.

The water dilution facilities at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Aug. 22. (Yonhap)
The water dilution facilities at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Aug. 22. (Yonhap)

The problem is, rainwater and groundwater coming into contact with radioactive debris is generating 90 to 140 metric tons of new wastewater every day. Japan previously shared that it had to remove the storage tanks containing radioactive wastewater in order to find space for radioactive debris storage. But as the amount of contaminated water it had to take care of continued to increase, Japan became caught in a vicious cycle in which the end date of the release kept being pushed back indefinitely due to the increase in the amount of total wastewater to dump.

“The fact that more wastewater will be dumped over a longer period of time changes the premise on which the current assessment regarding the environmental impact of radiation is based,” said Han Byeong-seop, the head of the Institute for Nuclear Safety. This is why the Fukushima round table, a consultative group composed of researchers from Fukushima University, tried to stop the release of the irradiated water until as late as Monday by releasing a statement pointing out that the problem of groundwater inflow had to be resolved first.

Only 30% of 1.34 million metric tons of water meets standard for discharge

The performance of ALPS, the system that would eliminate radioactive nuclides in the contaminated water, is another issue. According to the power plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), out of the 13.4 million metric tons of radioactive wastewater treated by ALPS, only 30% met Japan’s standard for release, showing that ALPS has problems not only in its performance but also in its filter inspection and operation. After noting this during its field inspection, the South Korean government recommended that Japan conduct filter inspections more often, but Japan put off accepting the recommendation, saying it would discuss the matter based on the outcome of facilities improvement.

A person, in June, analyzes and measures the contaminated water scheduled to be released from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. (Yonhap)
A person, in June, analyzes and measures the contaminated water scheduled to be released from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. (Yonhap)

Scientists are continuously pointing out that there is insufficient evidence to assure the safety of the radioactive wastewater’s release into the ocean. For example, the results of an epidemiological study on the effects of radiation published in the British Medical Journal questioned Japan’s explanation that even if radioactive nuclides flow into the ocean, the increase in exposure to radiation would be minimal. Conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the study analyzed the cause of death of 103,553 people who worked in the nuclear industry in the US, France, or the UK, showing that even low-level radiation exposure between 0 to 20 milligrays increases one’s risk of dying from solid tumors in internal organs other than blood by 130% per milligray. 20 milligrays is not even half the cumulative dose limit allowed to radiation workers.

Controversy surrounding the harmfulness of tritium, which ALPS cannot filter, continues as well. The Japanese government says diluting the treated water with ocean water until the concentration of tritium is 1,500 becquerel per liter or lower will get the job done, but there are simply not enough studies on tritium’s effect on the marine ecosystem and the human body.

Despite the circumstances, it will be virtually impossible for the South Korean government to proactively examine problems that may arise in the process of the wastewater’s release. The South Korean government is highlighting the fact that Japan will provide material related to its release of the irradiated water, including information regarding the concentration of tritium following dilution, every hour on its website while South Korea regularly dispatches its experts to the IAEA office at the water release site to monitor the status of the release. But some say it is questionable how effective making inspection visits rather than stationing a resident expert at the site could be.

By Kim Jeong-su, senior staff writer

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