Japan may soon dump hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive water into the ocean


A worker in a protective suit and a mask looks at tanks, under construction, to store radioactive water, in the J1 area at the Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, Monday, March 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Toru Hanai, Pool)

This is sure to make a few people mad. On the third anniversary of the worst radioactive disaster since Chernobyl, officials overseeing the Fukushima power plant now say they want to dump hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.

“Storing massive amounts of water on-site is not sustainable,” Dale Klein, the nation’s chief foreign adviser on the disaster, said earlier this week in a rare tour of the now moribund power plant.

The plant has kept the radioactive water every day since the March 2011 meltdown, caused by an incredible earthquake-tsunami combination that killed  people and overloaded three of the Fukushima plant’s six reactors. Now, in some of the most pointed pleas to dump the water into the ocean to date, Klein says “a controlled release is much safer than keeping the water on-site.”


Workers pile bags of radioactive decontamination waste in snow in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, on Monday, March 10, 2014 (Photos by Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)

But what, exactly, does a “controlled release” mean? It involves a filtration process that would remove all radioactive elements from the water — except a barely harmful isotope called “tritium” — before dumping. Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that’s often used to make nuclear bombs, cannot penetrate the human skin and isn’t thought to be pose much of a risk unless ingested.

“Tritium is not an isotope that builds up in the body,” Klein says. “A controlled release is better than storing thousands of tonnes on site.”

A process that has become more difficult by the day. Every day, nuclear officials report, an additional 400 tons of groundwater flows into the plant every day and becomes contaminated in a process that looks like this:

Tokyo Electric Power Company
Diagram released by Tokyo Electric Power Company

This, Japanese officials say, is a major problem. It got so bad last August, that the tanks leaked as much as 300 tons of untreated radioactive water into the ocean, causing all sorts of headaches for Japan’s leaders. “You cannot keep storing the water forever,” explains Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority. “We have to make a choice comparing all risks involved.”

The announcement comes at the same time that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he’s done mitigating a related risk. Though public anxieties over the future of nuclear power in Japan haven’t dissipated, Abe now says he’s ready to restart the nation’s 48 reactors that haven’t churned since the March 2011 disaster.

“I cannot draw up an energy policy under the premise of zero,” Abe told a budget committee in the lower house of Japan’s Diet. “I would like to restart reactors which have been confirmed safe according to strict standards.”

 

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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