On August 24, Japan started dumping radioactive water from Fukushima into the Pacific. The first batch of 7,800 tons of radioactive contaminated water is currently being discharged into the ocean, a process that will continue for 17 days. Experts estimate around 1.4 million tons of contaminated water has accumulated so far. Discharges may continue for 30-50 years, affecting the entire Pacific region and beyond. This has raised global concerns about health and environmental impacts. Despite headlines suggesting that “scientists say it’s safe” and that “only China is opposing this,” the reality is much more nuanced.
“From a technical and a scientific point of view, this is perfectly safe and there are many equivalent situations that happen around the world. It does sound like a bad thing to do, but it’s actually very safe.”
— Nigel Marks, Associate Professor of Physics, Curtin University
Japan’s official charts comparing Fukushima’s tritium emissions to those from nuclear plants worldwide seem to support this view. However, unlike other nuclear power plants that are functioning normally, Fukushima, the site of the worst nuclear accident in 2011 since Chornobyl, released large amounts of radioactive elements at that time. So, is the water from Fukushima truly comparable to that from other nuclear power plants?
Typically, we describe the operation of a nuclear power plant as “boiling water.” The primary function involves circulating water that absorbs heat from the nuclear reactor, converting it into steam to drive turbines and generate electricity. The resulting vapor is then cooled by seawater in a separate loop, which transforms it back into liquid water. The wastewater discharged is mainly the seawater used for cooling, which does not touch the nuclear material in the reactor. This process is well-known, and the primary substance in the discharged water, tritium, is managed via established protocols.
However, the situation at the Fukushima plant is starkly different. Inside the damaged reactors, melted nuclear fuel debris is being cooled using pumped-in water, which comes into direct contact with the highly toxic materials. To this is added approximately 100 tons of groundwater and rainwater, which leak into the reactor buildings each day and also become contaminated. All water is treated(as TEPCO said) and stored in more than 1,000 tanks on site.
This water contains not only significant quantities of tritium but over 60 other hazardous radioactive substances.
“Including carbon-14, which is used for radiocarbon dating but is also dangerous if ingested and can concentrate in the food chain. Caesium-137, which causes soft tissue cancer, Strontium-90 which causes bone cancer and leukaemia, and then there’s Tritium. ” The Guardian Video, How Japan is dumping 1m tonnes of radioactive water in the ocean | It’s Complicated
“They can get rid of the vast vast majority of these other elements, but Tritium.”
— Jim Smith, Professor of Environmental Science, University of Portsmouth
So how does this process go?
The Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), a key facility for treating nuclear-contaminated water, functions like an oversized water filter. Ideally, it would treat all radioactive materials except tritium to bring their concentrations up to standard, as Japan claims.
But there are doubts.
“I think the most useful independent assessment has been conducted by several very well regarded international scientists in a scientific independent expert panel, commissioned by the Pacific Islands Forum who engaged in detail with the Japanese government, with TEPCO, with the IAEA… It is clear that we really don’t know exactly what’s in all of those tanks. It’s likely very different in different tanks. We really don’t know how effectively the ALPS, what if purification system will work to remove those many radionuclide other than tritium. ”
— Tilman Ruff, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
“If it’s just called ‘tritium water’, people may be misled into thinking it contains only tritium. This can be considered extremely misleading propaganda… In fact, there are also some radioactive substances in it. Because it was assumed to contain only trace amounts, no testing was conducted. Nearly 170 types of radioactive substances were arbitrarily decided to be present in extremely low quantities, so they were not tested for. ”
— Taro Yamamoto, Japanese Senator
Reports from Kyodo News reveal that the levels of radioactive substances, excluding tritium, in the treated water were found to exceed regulatory standards.
Moreover, it was disclosed in 2018 that 70% of the tanks contained levels of other radioactive substances higher than legal limits, with some samples up to 20,000 times the limit. Two days after discharge began in August 2022, in an interview TEPCO’s representatives stated that 66% of treated water still fails to meet standards.
Problematically, beyond tritium, the total inventory of radionuclides remaining in the storage tanks is unknown. And with over 1 million tons of contaminated water in storage, even small concentrations could represent substantial absolute amounts of radioactive substances released.
TEPCO claims it will conduct a second treatment to further lower radionuclide levels before ocean discharge. However, no data on the performance and capabilities has been provided.
While the media portrays the IAEA as fully “backing” or “approving” Japan’s discharge plan, the IAEA report itself clarifies that it is not a recommendation or endorsement.
It is important to note that the IAEA review is not an on-site inspection or an independent verification of the data. Rather, it based its assessment on data selectively provided by Japan, rather than fully independent analysis and radiation monitoring.
Furthermore, they only sampled and tested water from 3 groups of the 1000+ storage tanks, representing just 3% of total tank capacity.
Currently, the IAEA presents radiation data for the Fukushima nuclear effluent discharge on their website; however, the data provided is limited to tritium levels, and it is still provided by TEPCO, with repeated failure to reduce radionuclides to prescribed limits, along with a lack of transparency on the residual contamination volumes.
In contrast to most of the Western governments who remain suspiciously silent on this unfolding environmental disaster, scientists are more vocal in their criticism.
The US National Association of Marine Laboratories (NAML), an organization of more than 100 member laboratories, has released a position paper, stating their opposition to the dumping of contaminated water “based on the fact that there is a lack of adequate and accurate scientific data supporting Japan’s assertion of safety.” Also, solely focusing on the dilution of tritium might be misleading.
Some experts argue the IAEA downplayed risks from radionuclides like carbon-14 which persist far longer in the environment compared to tritium. Like marine biologist Robert Richmond, from the University of Hawaii, he warns that after reviewing all the data provided by TEPCO and the Japanese government, and visited the Fukushima site.
Richmond is raising concerns that marine life and ocean currents could carry harmful radionuclides across the entire Pacific Ocean. He told the BBC: “We’ve seen an inadequate radiological, ecological impact assessment that makes us very concerned that Japan would not only be unable to detect what’s getting into the water, sediment, and organisms but if it does, there is no recourse to remove it… There’s no way to get the genie back in the bottle.”
What he means is that once released, radioactive materials disperse in the world’s oceans through ocean currents. These substances dilute in seawater but also increase in concentration through bioaccumulation in the marine food chain. As larger organisms consume smaller contaminated organisms, heavy isotopes can accumulate, posing risks. An article in Nature challenges the concept of dilution as a solution to pollution.
In conclusion, the safety of the water in Fukushima depends on the authenticity of the data, the feasibility of implementing theoretical plans, the long-term effectiveness and monitoring of the 30-50-year discharge, and whether the Japanese government and TEPCO can deliver on their promises.
There are reasons to believe that the choice of the “ocean discharge plan” is driven by economic considerations. How much trust can we place in the Japanese government and TEPCO?
Even the Japanese people themselves are skeptical. A survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun in August revealed that only 53% supported the plan while 41% opposed it. There have been large-scale protests in South Korea, and Pacific countries also do not support the plan. Despite the verbal support from the U.S. government for the “ocean discharge,” they have reduced their imports of Japanese agricultural and aquatic products the most in the first half of this year.
The reactors have not been fully stopped, and TEPCO currently has no knowledge of the whereabouts of the melted fuel cores, nor do they have plans to extract or decommission the reactors. This means that theoretically, there is an infinite amount of nuclear-contaminated water. And this is only the beginning.
Baskut Tuncak, the U.N. special rapporteur since 2014, expressed his sadness by saying, “Setting aside the duties incumbent on Japan to consult and protect under international law, it saddens me to think that a country that has suffered the horrors of being the only country on which not one but two nuclear bombs were dropped during war, would continue on such a path in dealing with the radioactive aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.”