The Debate Surrounding Japan's Fukushima Wastewater Release
by Tatiana Orr
In a recent announcement, the Japanese government shared plans to release approximately 1.2 million tons of radioactive waste water from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant into the North Pacific Ocean. Their controversial decision to dump the toxins came after seven years of deliberation to avoid damaging the plant’s reputation. It would begin in two years and continue for another 40 years, which could lead to serious aftereffects for the entire Pacific coastline. While a final decision is still pending, there is global discourse about the possible repercussions this could have.
The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated East Japan in 2011, making it the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history and the fourth most powerful in the world. The 9.1 magnitude earthquake triggered tsunami waves that came in at heights up to 40.5 meters causing massive flooding in the area. The floods disabled the emergency generators at Fukushima needed to pump cooling water to nuclear reactor cores. This caused three reactor core meltdowns and hydrogen explosions that released radionuclides into the water, such as Carbon-14 and Tritium.
Traces of these radioactive elements were then found in the waters of Alaska, California, Hawaii, and other states that connect through the Pacific. The reason this poses such a great danger is because C-14 has a half life of 5,730 years (time it takes to decay) and can bio-accumulate in marine ecosystems causing cellular and genetic mutations. Tritium has a half life of 12 years, so it breaks down far quicker than carbon. Officials have stated that small doses of Tritium in the water could be harmless since it is the one chemical that cannot be extracted, but the long term impact is still unknown.
Radionuclides are atoms with an unstable nucleus that contain excess nuclear energy. This energy can be emitted through gamma radiation, transferred and released as a conversion electron, or can be used to create and emit new particles from the nucleus. The Tokyo Electric Power Company that owns Fukushima and is responsible for the clean up of the plant admits that the wastewater contains high amounts of radioactive chemicals, but claims the water is treated sufficiently enough to be released. The issue is that the ocean already contains traces of chemicals left behind from bomb testing and chemical dumping in the past. Adding more contaminants to an already tainted water source is bound to have a drastic effect on marine life and our ecosystem in general.
Japanese citizens, especially local fishermen, have spoken out in protest, but it is unclear whether TEPC and the government will change courses. The government promises to support the fishing industry and compensate for any damage as a solution to the skepticism, but the argument that the issue could be avoided altogether still stands. China and South Korea have begun to publicly protest the release of Fukushima’s water and urge them to consider alternatives. Communities across the Pacific would see the after effects of increased pollution if the right choice is not made.
Of the various suggestions, the one that would be the most beneficial for the environment would be to continue storing the wastewater in silos for another 15 years until the Tritium has reached its half life and is no longer radioactive. Japan is seeking the help of the International Atomic Energy Agency in order to aid the situation, increase transparency, and gain public trust amid the debate.