May 30, 2024

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Is the Discharge of Radioactive Water from Fukushima Safe?

Is the Discharge of Radioactive Water from Fukushima Safe?



 

Is the Discharge of Radioactive Water from Fukushima Safe?

 

Despite concerns raised by many countries and international organizations, Japan has decided to release the contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in 2011 into the Pacific Ocean.

 

Starting this year and over the next 30 years, Japan plans to gradually discharge the treated water, which has been stored on-site, into the ocean through a pipeline extending one kilometer offshore.

 

However, what are the implications of this water for the marine environment and the safety of human beings in the Pacific region?

 

On June 22, 2023, Nature magazine’s news analysis section published an article reviewing the issue of the discharge of radioactive water from Fukushima, along with insights from renowned scientists on this matter [1].

 

Is the Discharge of Radioactive Water from Fukushima Safe?

 

 

 


How did this water become contaminated?

After being struck by an earthquake and a tsunami, the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, experienced explosions, causing a continuous rise in the core temperature.

Since then, over 1.3 million cubic meters of seawater have been sprayed onto the damaged core to prevent overheating, resulting in the presence of 64 types of contaminants known as radioactive nuclides.

Some of the radioactive nuclides that may pose a threat to human health include carbon-14, iodine-131, cesium-137, strontium-90, cobalt-60, and tritium (also known as hydrogen-3).

Some of these radioactive nuclides have relatively short half-lives and have already decayed since the disaster occurred. However, others take longer to decay; for example, carbon-14 has a half-life of over 5,000 years.

 

 


How is Japan dealing with this water?

The contaminated water has been collected, treated to reduce the levels of radioactive substances, and stored in over 1,000 stainless steel tanks on-site.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has employed the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) to treat this water.

According to TEPCO, the water undergoes five treatment stages, including coagulation, adsorption, and physical filtration.

The plans for handling the radioactive waste generated during the ALPS process will be “gradually disclosed as the discharge process progresses.”

 

The ALPS process removes the majority of the 62 radioactive nuclides, reducing their concentration below the regulatory limits for environmental discharge water set by Japan in 2022. However, the process cannot remove carbon-14 and tritium, necessitating further dilution of the treated water.

 

TEPCO has stated that the results indicate a tritium concentration of approximately 1,500 becquerels per liter, which is about one-seventh of the guideline value for tritium in drinking water set by the World Health Organization.

 

Jim Smith, an environmental scientist at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, suggests that the risk to countries surrounding the Pacific Ocean is likely minimal. He argues that the risk of leaks from the current storage tanks is potentially greater due to earthquakes or typhoons compared to storing the treated water on-site.

 


The Impacts of Radioactive Water Discharge on Humans and Marine Life

Concerns have been raised by countries such as South Korea regarding the potential unknown effects of the treated water on the marine environment. In May, a delegation from South Korea visited the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Last year, the National Oceanic Laboratory Association in Herndon, Virginia, also opposed the release plan, stating that there is a “lack of sufficient and accurate scientific data supporting Japan’s safety claims.”

The Philippine government has also called on Japan to reconsider the discharge of water into the Pacific Ocean.

 

“Do those who advocate for this process, treating the water with ALPS and then releasing it into the ocean, satisfactorily prove that it is safe for marine and human health?” questioned Robert Richmond, a marine biologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

 

“The answer is no.”

Richmond further explained that they have reviewed all the data provided by Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Japanese government, and visited the Fukushima nuclear power plant, but there are still unanswered questions regarding tritium and carbon-14.

 

In particular, tritium, which has not been effectively treated, is a β-emitting radionuclide, meaning that the ionizing radiation it emits can damage DNA.

 

However, Tokyo Electric Power Company claims that the dose of ionizing radiation from tritium concentration in the treated water released is lower than the dose experienced on a round-trip flight from New York to Tokyo.

 

To this, Richmond stated that human skin partially blocks ionizing radiation.

 

“If you ingest something that is contaminated with β-emitting radionuclides, your cells will be exposed.”

 

The question of whether radioactive substances will accumulate in fish has also raised concerns in some countries.

Although Tokyo Electric Power Company states that fishing is generally not conducted within a 3-kilometer range of the discharge pipeline, scientists are still concerned about the potential accumulation of tritium in the food chain.

 

Robert Richmond, a marine biologist from the United States, worries that as larger organisms consume smaller contaminated organisms, tritium may concentrate in the food web.

 

“The concept of dilution as a solution to pollution has been proven wrong,” Richmond emphasized.

 

Shigeyoshi Otosaka, a marine scientist and ocean chemist at the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, expressed similar concerns, suggesting that tritium in its organic-bound form may accumulate in fish and marine organisms.

 

 


Have Other Countries Released Radioactive Water Before?

The answer to this question might surprise you. In previous cases, there have been operations to discharge water containing tritium into the ocean.

British environmental scientist Smith, who believes that the impact of Japan’s nuclear wastewater discharge on the environment is minimal, pointed out that the Heysham nuclear power station and Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the UK annually release 400 to 2,000 terabecquerels (TBq) of tritium into the ocean.

 

Shigeyoshi Otosaka, a Japanese scientist, also stated that the situation in Japan is similar: “Before the accident, each normally operating nuclear power plant in Japan would release over 50 terabecquerels of tritium annually.”

 

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) stated that the amount of tritium released from the pipeline each year will be less than 22 terabecquerels. “The release rate of tritium… can be well controlled,” they said.

 

What’s the Plan for the Future?

TEPCO has stated that they will continue to monitor marine organisms and sediments in the surrounding areas. Monitoring will also be conducted by Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:
[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-02057-y

Is the Discharge of Radioactive Water from Fukushima Safe?

(source:internet, reference only)


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