Japan Wants To Release One Million Tons Of Contaminated Water From The Fukushima Disaster Into The Pacific

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CleanTechnica maintains a Google document that lists all the stories available for our team of writers to write about. One column in that document categorizes the available stories by subject matter — renewables, fossil fuels, plastics, EVs, etc. It’s hard to say precisely where this story fits, so I have decided to classify it as news from the Insanity Desk. After the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear generating station by a tsunami in 2011, more than 1 million tons of water contaminated by radiation were stored onsite, waiting for someone to figure out what to do with it.

Fukushima rover
Credit: Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Now the Japanese government says it has decided to release the water — which is currently stored in more than a thousand steel tanks — into the Pacific Ocean, a process it says could take decades to complete. Local fishermen are aghast at the idea. Their livelihood was decimated by the original incident at the Fukushima facility. Who wants to buy fish that have been swimming around in nuclear waste? Now nine years later, after struggling to find markets for their seafood again, the government wants to hammer them one more time. The government says, “Not to worry, fisher persons.” It says it will address concerns that consumers will once again shun seafood from the area, whatever that means. That and ¥1,000 will get you a latte.

Alternative solutions include evaporation or the construction of more storage tanks at other locations. That second idea would involve transporting the polluted water from one site to another. What could possibly go wrong in that scenario, huh?

South Korea has banned sales of seafood harvested near Fukushima and has expressed strong concerns about the plan to dump that contaminated water into the ocean. It calls the plan a “grave threat” to the marine environment. Environmental groups also oppose the move, according to a report by The Guardian.

Is There Really An Environmental Threat?

Tepco, the Japanese utility company that owns the Fukushima facility, has developed what it calls its Advanced Liquid Processing System, which removes highly radioactive substances from the stored water. But the system is unable to filter out tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that nuclear power plants routinely dilute and dump into the ocean. A panel of experts advising the government said earlier this year that releasing the water was among the most “realistic options.”

The members of the panel claim that tritium is only harmful to humans in very large doses, while the International Atomic Energy Agency says it is possible to dilute filtered waste water with seawater before it is released into the ocean. The water at the Fukushima facility will be diluted inside the plant before it is released so that it is 40 times less concentrated. That process that will take 30 years according to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.

Pressure to decide the water’s fate has been building as storage space on the nuclear plant site runs out. Tepco estimates all available tanks will be full by the summer of 2022. As of last month, 1.23 million tons of water were being stored in 1,044 tanks, with the amount of waste water increasing by 170 tons a day. The water becomes contaminated when it mixes with other water used to prevent the three damaged reactor cores from melting.

Hiroshi Kishi, president of a nationwide federation of fisheries cooperatives, voiced opposition to the move in a meeting with the chief cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Kato, this week. Kato told reporters after the meeting that a decision on the water “should be made quickly” to avoid further delays in decommissioning the plant — a costly and complex operation that is expected to take around 40 years.

It’s About More Than Fishermen

Of course local fishermen should be concerned. Imagine if cesspool pumping companies told farmers they were going to dump their waste products on farmers’ fields but don’t worry — first we are going to dilute them by 40 times with clean water. Do you think those farmers would embrace the idea?

The issue is that the thirst for energy clouds the minds of otherwise rational people. Nuclear power is safe because accidents almost never happen — until they do. Drilling for oil and gas is safe because how much harm can one well do in the grand scheme of things? How much harm can the emissions from one Toyota Aygo do? How much harm can the phosphates and nitrogen put on a corn field in Iowa do? How much effect will the emissions associated with constructing a concrete office building in Nairobi do? How can the pollutants going up the smokestack of a single steel mill in Europe threaten the entire environment?

Humans look out at the vastness of the oceans and the skies and convince themselves that Nature is just too vast to ever be affected by human behavior. And besides, who wants to live in a world with no cars, no lights to drive away the darkness, no internet, and no air conditioning? What will people do with themselves if they don’t have ready access to cheap, abundant energy?

Apologists for nuclear energy argue it is mostly a boon to humanity and that the Chernobyls and Fukushimas are few and far between. The risk is manageable, they say. Apologists for the oil and gas industry crow about how they power the world economy, leaving aside the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez catastrophes as outliers. Same with leaking pipelines. They are just a cost of doing business, one that can be managed.

What about all those more than 100,000 abandoned wells that dot the American landscape? Joe Biden says that capping them will provide lots of jobs, which may be true, but why should taxpayers be stuck with the bill while the companies who drilled them declare bankruptcy and walk away Scot free? Does that make any sense?

What we need is a new consensus, one which recognizes that human action has global consequences. Our tiny blue lifeboat out at the far edge of the universe is not immune to human caused degradation. It needs to be protected from harm. Turning our eyes longingly to distant planets to rescue us from our own foolishness is short sighted in the extreme. Ours is not a throwaway planet, although we treat it as one. We desperately need a check up from the neck up — the old ways aren’t working any more and time to save ourselves from our own actions is rapidly running out.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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