Editor's note: Japan's attempt to release the Fukushima nuclear-contaminated water into the ocean will not only violate international law but also its own domestic laws. The decision shows the Japanese government and the Japanese company that owns the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant stand together in making the whole world suffer the consequences of Japan's action. Two experts share their views on the issue with China Daily.
(MA XUEJING / CHINA DAILY)
Japan has decided to start discharging radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean very soon. The operator of the wrecked plant began tests on Monday of the newly constructed facilities for discharging treated radioactive wastewater into the sea. Many myths and untruths have been spread about the nuclear-contaminated water. For example, the Japanese government has said, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the global nuclear industry and some scientists, there is nothing to worry about the effects of the radioactive wastewater.
The Japanese government also claims that nearly all the radioactive materials will be removed from the wastewater using the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) with only tritium remaining before it is released into the Pacific. It is constantly stated that tritium cannot be removed from the wastewater but would emit very weak radiation and therefore it will have no impact on either the marine environment or human health in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
False claims to mislead the Japanese public
As for Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner of the Fukushima nuclear plant, it claims discharging the wastewater is necessary due to insufficient space for more storage tanks and for it to be able to fully decommission the Fukushima plant between 2041 and 2051. TEPCO also says the discharges will meet regulatory standards and will be lawful.
In the real world, it is a lot worse and a lot more complicated than what TEPCO, the Japanese government and the IAEA claim. The ALPS has been a spectacular failure, with major doubts about its effectiveness. In addition to tritium, all the radioactive carbon (C-14) in the wastewater will be released into the ocean along with many other radionuclides (plutonium isotopes, iodine-129, strontium-90). But despite the Japanese government and TEPCO "planning" to keep them below the regulatory limit, they will still be significant.
There is no safety threshold for artificial radioactivity in the environment, and technology does exist to process tritium from the tanks' water. However, TEPCO and the Japanese government do not want to spend huge amounts of money needed to do so. Tritium is indeed a low-energy radioactive material but that does not mean its effect is weak; if ingested, it has the potential to damage plants, animals and humans.
Recent research published by a leading radiation biologist shows scientific literature of the past 60-plus years is clear — tritium, in particular organically bound tritium (OBT), is biologically harmful to all forms of life. The persistence, bioaccumulation and potential biomagnification and increased toxicity of OBT increases the potential impact on the environment if tritiated water is discharged on land or in the sea.
Tritium more dangerous than previously believed
None of the current regulations in Japan (or worldwide) takes into full account the nature of organic forms of tritium. That organic forms of tritium have been found to bioaccumulate in phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, is deeply worrying. The fact that there has been no comprehensive environmental impact assessment of these and many other issues is outrageous, and suggests there is a deliberate underestimation of the accumulation and potential toxic effect of tritium on the environment.
Equally important, the many other radioactive materials in the Fukushima wastewater have the potential to cause damage to the environment and human health. In fact, Japan has sufficient storage capacity, including in the areas around the Fukushima plant. And storing the toxic wastewater, TEPCO cannot fully decommission the reactors at Fukushima in the next 20-30 years — probably not in this century. Rather than being lawful, the release of the wastewater into the sea will violate international law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
One reason why the untruths and myths continue to be spread is that there is a lot at stake for the Japanese government and the nuclear industry. Japan's energy policy is dependent on restarting many nuclear reactors shut down after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. So far, nine have resumed operations — but according to government policy, Japan needs 30-plus reactors by 2030.
Public opinion in Japan has been influenced by the government's claim that it is safe to operate these nuclear reactors and that it is possible to recover from a three-reactor meltdown without consequences for human health and the environment. Of course, it's not.
Sweeping real issue under the carpet
TEPCO, the Japanese government or the IAEA refuse to accept that the wastewater crisis points to a deeper nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant. And it is getting worse, because groundwater entering the plant continues to become highly contaminated, while the water in the tanks requiring ALPS processing increases.
In November 2021, based on TEPCO data, there were 1,284,284 cubic meters of contaminated ALPS water in the storage tanks, of which 832,900 cu m needed further ALPS processing. As of April 20, 2023, the total volume of radioactive wastewater stored in the tanks was 1,330,944 cu m — a 3.6 percent increase in less than 2 years.
Worse, about 70 percent or 931,600 cu m of the wastewater needs to be processed again (and probably many times again) by the ALPS to bring the radioactive concentration levels below the regulatory limit for discharge. This is an increase of nearly 12 percent in less than 2 years.
TEPCO has succeeded in reducing the concentration levels of strontium, iodine and plutonium in only 0.2 percent of the total volume of the wastewater, and it still requires further processing. But no secondary processing has taken place in the past nearly three years. Neither TEPCO nor the Japanese government nor the IAEA wants to talk about this. They have not said how many times the wastewater needs to be processed, how long it will take to do so or whether the efforts will ever be successful.
Problems not new but none solved in 5 years
Greenpeace wrote about these problems and why the ALPS failed nearly five years ago; none of those issues has been resolved. Also, there is a high possibility of the ALPS failing in the future.
To proceed with their discharge plan, the Japanese government and TEPCO have been creating a false impression on the public that significant progress has been made in decommissioning the Fukushima plant. But the fact is, the source of the problem — the highly radioactive fuel debris in reactor pressure vessels 1, 2 and 3 — continues to contaminate groundwater. Nearly 1000 cu m of water becomes highly contaminated every 10 days. So until the nuclear fuel is isolated from the environment, contaminated groundwater, potentially hundreds of thousands of cubic meters, will continue to accumulate.
While the Fukushima plant, after being destroyed by the earthquake-triggered tsunami in March 2011, released large amounts of radioactive particles into the environment, most of the radioactive inventory remains inside the melted fuel. As such, the damaged Fukushima plant on the edge of the ocean is a long-term radioactive threat to the environment, including the marine environment. And this threat will be aggravated once Japan begins dumping the toxic water into the ocean.
TEPCO, the Japanese government and the IAEA refuse to acknowledge the fact that the decommissioning plan for the Fukushima plant is not attainable, and that they must embark on a comprehensive reassessment of the plan.
Crisis compounded by damage to reactor
The nuclear crisis in Fukushima is compounded by the damage to the reactors, in particular unit 1. The rapid meltdown of the nuclear fuel in March 2011 severely damaged the large concrete block the 440-ton reactor pressure vessel sits on. One of the agencies responsible for its decommissioning has recently demanded that TEPCO work out immediate countermeasures to prevent the possible collapse of the reactor. But with very high radiation levels inside the plant, it's not clear whether any countermeasures are possible.
Building a very large containment structure covering the reactor buildings, like it was done at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine after the nuclear disaster in 1986, is probably the only way to prevent highly radioactive dust entering the lower atmosphere in the event of a future collapse. But such a "solution" is currently not an option for the Japanese government or the nuclear industry, as it would send the wrong message that the decommissioning process is not going according to plan.
There is no scientific, legal or moral justification for Japan to deliberately contaminate our shared and common marine environment. And concerned citizens, scientists, maritime lawyers, the fishing communities across the Asia-Pacific and the world's leading oceanography universities and institutes have spread public awareness about the nuclear dangers, something that has rarely been done before.
There is a very strong legal case for challenging Japan's decision to dump the wastewater into the sea but doing so is a major undertaking. For many reasons, no state or group of states may take up the challenge through UNCLOS this year. But since the environmental threat from the Fukushima plant will only intensify, future legal action should not be ruled out.
At a time when our oceans are under so many multiple threats, including from melting glaciers and related climate emergencies, overfishing and biodiversity loss and plastic pollution — there is no reason why Japan should be allowed to dump the radioactive water into the sea.
Greenpeace has been campaigning for protection of our oceans from radioactive contamination since the 1970s. And the most important thing I have learned in my 30 years with Greenpeace is that positive change is possible even if it does not often happen as early as it should but it can happen and people must never give up their efforts or hope.
The author is a senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace East Asia and has worked in Japan and wider Asia for over 30 years.
The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS