In the shadows of a nuclear disaster

Japan is running out of time to get rid of the radioactive water used in the Fukushima plant

Published - February 08, 2020 09:26 pm IST

The tanks in which the contaminated, slightly radioactive, water is stored at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

The tanks in which the contaminated, slightly radioactive, water is stored at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

Japan is gearing up to take centre stage on the global arena as the host of the Olympic Games this summer, but it remains unable to shake off the long shadow of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. A high-level advisory panel has just issued a report recommending that the Japanese government dispose of the growing cache of radioactive water from the defunct nuclear plant by releasing it into the ocean. If implemented, the move will likely alarm neighbouring countries like South Korea with whom Japan already has fraught historical relations. The affected region’s fishing industry is also strongly opposed to the idea.

Since 2011, when the Fukushima nuclear reactors were crippled by an earthquake and tsunami, over 1.2 million tonnes of contaminated water have been stored in giant containers on the plant site. This is the water that has been used to cool down and keep the reactors’ fuel cores from melting. About 150 tonnes of new water is added every day and storage space for it will run out by 2022.

The water is treated using an advanced liquid processing system (ALPS) before being stored in the tanks, but this does not remove an element called tritium, an isotope of hydrogen. And while it is common for nuclear plants located on the coast around the world to dump “treated” water laced with tritium into the sea, Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power), the plant operator, admitted in 2018 that the stored water in Fukushima contains other radioactive materials as well. The reason: Tepco had not changed the filters in the decontamination system frequently enough in the early years of cleaning the surge of water flowing through the reactors. The utility has since promised that the water will be treated again and all radioactive particles other than tritium removed prior to any release.

Practical option

The government has been considering several methods to dispose of the water, including injecting it deep into the ground, solidifying and burying it, and releasing it into the atmosphere.

The panel’s recommendation, however, is to dispose of it in the ocean as the most practical and safe option.

Japan’s Industry Ministry has said the health effects of ocean release will be minimal, amounting to between just 1/40,000 to 1/1,600 of the radiation levels to which humans are naturally exposed annually.

But not everyone is convinced. Fukushima’s fishing sector is particularly concerned about further blows to its image, given that its annual catch is still less than 20% of pre-2011 levels. The fact is that government assurances are not always believed by consumers.

Over 20 countries still have import restrictions on Japanese seafood and other agricultural products. Neighbouring South Korea not only retains the ban on seafood imports from Fukushima, it summoned a senior Japanese Embassy official in August last year to explain how the stored contaminated water would be dealt with. South Korean athletes are planning to bring their own radiation detectors and food to the Games.

Some Olympic events like baseball and softball contests will be held less than 60 km from the wrecked power plants. The Olympic torch relay will take off on March 26 from a football training centre, called J-Village, that served as a frontline operations base for workers battling the 2011 crisis. The relay will then pass through a number of areas near the damaged plant on its way to Tokyo.

In Japan, the Games have been dubbed the “Recovery Olympics”. The hope is that they will help kickstart a renaissance of Fukushima where in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, more than 1,50,000 people were evacuated. Only a small percentage of these have returned to their homes despite most areas being declared safe for habitation by the government.

The actual decommissioning of the affected nuclear plants will probably take upwards of 40 years. In 2016, the Japanese government calculated the total cost of plant dismantlement, decontamination of affected areas, and compensation to be 21.5 trillion yen ($195 billion) — roughly a fifth of the country’s annual budget at the time.

Clearly, the Olympics are only a way-stop on the path to recovery for Fukushima. But with storage space fast running out, the decision of how to dispose the contaminated water cannot wait long.

The government is widely expected to follow the advice of the expert panel regarding the method of release, it is only the timing that remains uncertain.

(Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist based in Tokyo)

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