Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2021
By John LaForge
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet on April 13 “gave permission” to Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) to release over 1.25 million metric tons (1.38 million US tons) of Fukushima’s radioactive waste water into the Pacific Ocean.
Japan’s cabinet said the waste water will be diluted with additional seawater before being pumped into the ocean, and that the dumping will start in two years. The government said the dispersal will continue for at least 30 years, painting a picture of indefinitely perpetuating Fukushima’s globalized pollution.
Harsh rejection of the decision was immediate and widespread, coming from Russia, China, North and South Korea, the Philippines, New Zealand, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and several Pacific Island nations, as well as the fishing industry, marine scientists, and environmentalists.
Greenpeace Japan said in a press release the decision itself and any such dumping would violate international maritime law and that the planned release “completely disregards the human rights and interests of the people in Fukushima, wider Japan, and the Asia-Pacific region.”
The Biden Administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency both announced support for the decision, but criticism came from around the world, with South Korea and China considering law suits.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in told officials look into petitioning the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or filing an injunction there over Japan’s decision, Al Jazeera reported.
According to a statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Beijing also considers Japan’s plan to be a “possible violation of international law,” the French news service AFP reported.
Part of the reason for the backlash is that 70 percent of the waste water now stored in over 1,000 giant tanks is still contaminated with dozens of highly radioactive materials. Tepco’s Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) — a novel filter system that the company claimed would remove 62 isotopes from the water — has not worked. The company says it will re-filter the waste before it starts pouring it into the Pacific.
“This water is contaminated with such radionuclides as cesium-137, carbon-14, tritium (some of which will form the more dangerous ‘organically bound tritium’), strontium-90, cobalt-60, iodine-129, plutonium-239, and more than 50 other hazardous radionuclides,” reported Rick Steiner, a marine biologist in Anchorage and former University of Alaska professor of marine conservation, in the Anchorage Daily News April 25.
Likewise, physicist Iain Darby and researcher Azby Brown with Safecast wrote in Japan Times, “In late 2018, the company admitted that 70 percent of the tanks — more than 750,000 tons of treated water — still contained above-limit levels of strontium-90, ruthenium-106, cobalt-60, and many other radionuclides that the system had failed to adequately remove.” Safecast is an international nonprofit that conducts citizen monitoring of environmental radiation and other hazards.
Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Agency said that radioactivity in the released yet continuously accumulating waste water will be “within international limits,” and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso went so far as to say the waste would be “safe to drink.” (See p. 4) However, Prof. Steiner also reported that Tepco had admitted its waste water contains significant amounts of radioactive carbon-14. “As carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years, and is known to bio-accumulate in marine ecosystems and cause cellular and genetic impairment, this is a very serious concern. Fukushima carbon-14 will be added to the elevated radioactive carbon-14 load in the oceans from nuclear weapons tests last century — “bomb carbon” — now found in organisms even in the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianas Trench,” he wrote.
Japan’s dumping decision means that alternatives recommended by experts were rejected in favor of the cheapest choice. Other options include expansion and long-term tank storage to allow the waste’s radioactivity to decrease, replacing the ALPS filter with a system that removes tritium and all the rest, or evaporation of the waste water.
Kazue Suzuki, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Japan, said the government had “discounted the radiation risks and turned its back on the clear evidence that sufficient storage capacity is available on the nuclear site as well as in surrounding districts.”
Korean experts warned that “radioactive materials not properly filtered and discharged into the sea could be hazardous to those living in Korea and its neighboring China,” the Korea Herald reported. Choi Yoon, a professor at South Korea’s Kunsan National University, told Al Jazeera April 24, “When radioactive materials such as cesium or tritium flow into the ocean, they are absorbed into living things, mainly plankton. And through the food chain, radioactive materials accumulate in bigger fishes that eat lots of plankton or smaller fishes.”
“Through the sea’s currents, it can affect fishes near the Korean Peninsula, East Asia and even the entire world although the degree of dilution may vary,” Yoon said.
From the South Pacific the Guardian reported that Motarilavoa Hilda Lini, a Vanuatu [Pacific island nation] stateswoman and member of the Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific movement said, “If it is safe, dump it in Tokyo, test it in Paris, and store it in Washington, but keep our Pacific nuclear-free.”
Only 30 percent of 1.25 million metric tons of Tepco’s filtered radioactive waste water, which passed through the Advanced Liquid Processing System, has been cleared of high-risk radioactive materials. Dangerous isotopes have been found in up to 875,000 metric tons of the stored waste. Ingestion of “strontium-90 increases the risk of developing leukemia and bone cancer, according to a report by the Korea Energy Information Culture Agency,” the Korea Herald warned.
Suzuki, with Greenpeace Japan, said, “The Japanese Government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes.” The group’s international executive director Jennifer Morgan added that the plan for wastewater disposal “is a violation of Japan’s legal obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and will be strongly resisted over the coming months.”
For years leading up to Japan’s announcement, government officials, Tepco and nuclear power lobbyists have claimed that tritium, the radioactive form of hydrogen, is not harmful in small amounts. This statement is untrue; see “Reassessing” below and “UN Experts” on p. 3.
In dozens of reports on Japan’s decision, officials repeatedly acknowledged that radioactive tritium is routinely released into public waters by operating reactors, and that this has been a permitted industrial practice for six decades.
The “we do this all the time” admissions appeared to be presented as a kind of reassurance, as if polluting the Great Lakes and major rivers like the Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi is blasé. It continues because the nuclear industry and most government and regulatory agencies deny a connection between environmental radioactive pollution and the alarming rate of cancer incidence in humans.