Japan on Thursday began pumping treated radioactive water from the decommissioned Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, capping a years-long saga that pitted fearful local fishermen and neighboring countries against officials in Tokyo and scientific evidence showed the release of the water is less dangerous than keeping it in storage.
In March 2011, a tsunami swamped the generators that power the backup reactor cooling system at a nuclear power plant on Japan’s northeast coast, triggering the worst meltdown since Chernobyl in 1986. Since then, the Tokyo Electric Power Company has continued to circulate cold water through the decommissioned reactors to keep the radioactive fuel cool.
It is a routine process used in most of the 400 or so commercial nuclear reactors in the 32 countries that use nuclear energy. Once the water is circulated through the reactors, power companies like TEPCO filter out the most dangerous radioactive materials that result from the fission of uranium atoms. One important radioisotope remains: tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that is virtually impossible to remove from water.
Tritium is too weak to penetrate human skin and is considered one of the least harmful radionuclides. There is no data to show that tritium causes cancer in humans, although experiments on mice that had to ingest very large daily doses of tritium throughout their lives tended to develop cancer and die earlier than their counterparts who did not had done such a study Paper 2021 in the Journal of Radiation Research. Tritium is difficult to detect in the environment, making large-scale epidemiological research challenging. To be on the safe side, regulators around the world have typically set limits on tritium releases into waterways that are well below the level produced naturally by cosmic rays — and even below what wastewater treatment plants do into rivers, bays and oceans.
Therefore, in nuclear operations, the so-called tritiated water is typically only diluted and released into large waterways where the isotope is indistinguishable from naturally occurring concentrations of tritium. Outside of anti-nuclear activist circles, where decontextualized information about the risks associated with nuclear energy is rife, these routine releases of tritium usually attract little attention.
But over the past 12 years, TEPCO has accumulated more than 1 million tons of tritiated water in tanks stored in Japan – enough to fill 500 Olympic-size swimming pools. Those stockpiles are nearly depleted, and according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is a risk of another accident if an earthquake or giant wave causes the tanks to leak uncontrolled amounts of tritium.
After long debates, the Japanese government decided to pump the highly diluted tritiated water into the Pacific.
“The main problem with the release is that it sounds bad. But that’s actually not the case,” said Nigel Marks, a physicist and nuclear expert at Curtin University in Australia, in one opinion. “Similar releases have occurred around the world for six decades and nothing bad has ever happened.”
Ironically, the very people who are drawing attention to the Fukushima releases are the ones potentially at greatest risk from the tritium scare tactics. And a riot that leads to a further shift away from nuclear power will almost certainly guarantee greater use of fossil fuels, with devastating ecological consequences.
“The continued concern is like shooting yourself in the leg; The more you complain about it, the more people assume there is a problem when there isn’t one.”
– Paul Dickman, Senior Fellow at Argonne National Laboratory
Among the most vocal local opponents of Japan’s plans are fishermen, who fear the releases would result in import bans on their seafood, much like neighboring countries blocked shipments of some Japanese agricultural products after the Fukushima accident.
“The continued concern is like shooting yourself in the leg; “The more you complain about it, the more people assume there’s a problem when there’s no problem,” said Paul Dickman, senior fellow at Argonne National Laboratory, the US government’s premier nuclear research center. “For me, at least, the problem was that people don’t actually read what’s being proposed.”
According to Tony Irwin, a nuclear engineer at the Australian National University, France’s La Hague nuclear fuel power plant discharged more than 12 times the combined contents of all tanks at Fukushima in 2018 alone, with no harm to people or the environment.
South Korea’s Kori nuclear power plant has dumped more than four times as much tritium into East Asia’s waterways as Japan plans to dump from Fukushima. Still, in June, nearly eight in 10 South Koreans told polling firm Gallup they were concerned about Japan’s plan. Months earlier, the government in Seoul had protested loudly against the release from Fukushima finally give in in Julyand announced that his researchers had determined that the amount of tritium would be “less than 1/100,000th compared to the level measured in the surrounding waters in 2021, which is scientifically negligible”.
“More tritium is produced in the atmosphere than is produced in nuclear reactors, and then it falls as rain,” Irwin said in one public comment. “Ten times more tritium falls on Japan as rain each year than is excreted. The discharge limit for the release of radioactive water at Fukushima is 1/7 of the World Health Organization standard for drinking water. The discharge is ultra-conservative.”
China’s fast-growing nuclear reactor fleet dumps huge amounts of tritium into its waterways every year. But in a move widely seen as part of China’s geopolitical row with its former colonizer and regional rival, Beijing proved to be the most vocal national critic of Tokyo’s decision. At a press conference On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called Japan “extremely selfish and irresponsible” and accused its World War II-era opponent of using the oceans, which serve the common good of mankind, as “a sewer for Japan’s nuclear-polluted waters.” to treat.
Earlier this week, the partially self-governing Chinese city of Hong Kong opened beaten restrictions on imports of Japanese seafood and seaweed.
The battle for tritium isn’t just happening in East Asia.
In the United States, New York and Massachusetts have enacted state-level legislation to prevent Holtec International from releasing tritiated water from two decommissioned nuclear power plants near New York City and Boston. Since radiation falls under federal jurisdiction, the laws are likely to be overturned in court. But the episodes show how controversial the issue remains, with local news outlets characterizing the proposed layoffs as “dispose of radioactive waste” in waterways.
But unlike so-called “forever chemicals” — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are water and oil resistant, commonly used in nonstick materials and fire-fighting foam, and only recently recognized by federal agencies as significant carcinogenic pollutants — radiation and co. impacts have been identified for over a century ago, said Kathryn Higley, a radiology health scientist at Oregon State University.
“We have been studying radioactivity for more than 100 years. We have a pretty darn good idea of what the effects of radiation are and what doses are needed to cause those effects,” she said. “The dose makes the poison. It’s not radioactivity – it comes from natural sources everywhere. It depends on how much of it gets released and where it goes.”