Fishermen give Tepco green light

A federation of fisheries cooperatives in Fukushima Prefecture on March 25 accepted the so-called underground bypass plan by Tokyo Electric Power Co. to release groundwater into the sea to prevent it from flowing into the basements of the reactor buildings of its crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Two days later, a similar organization in Ibaraki Prefecture also accepted the plan, whose ultimate purpose is to reduce the amount of water radioactively contaminated by the plant.

The decisions were agonizing for the two fisheries organizations because the inflow into the sea of contaminated water from the plant has caused them tremendous economic harm. In addition to making serious efforts to halt the contamination of groundwater, Tepco and the government should adequately compensate local fishing cooperatives if they continue to suffer economic losses despite the bypass plan.

Every day about 400 tons of groundwater flows into the basement of the buildings housing Nos. 1 to 4 reactors, mixing with water from reactor cores and becoming highly radioactive. The underground bypass plan entails pumping 1,000 tons of groundwater directly into the sea on a daily basis to prevent it from flowing into the plant. This endeavor is expected to reduce the flow of groundwater into the basement of the reactor buildings by about 100 tons a day. The groundwater bypass was supposed to go into operation in 2012; Tepco now hopes to start operating it by the end of this month.

The fisheries organizations had little choice in their decision. If nothing is done, within a year there will be no more room to store contaminated water, which is now being held in huge tanks. If Tepco then decides to release the contaminated water into the sea, the Fukushima fishermen will be forced to give up trial fishing, thus further delaying the start of full-scale operations. As of the end of February, 1,095 tanks contained some 378,000 tons of highly radioactive water. Local fishermen harbor a strong distrust of Tepco because some 300 tons of contaminated water leaked from tanks in August and another 100 tons of water leaked in February.

The power company plans to purify all the contaminated water by March 2015 using the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), which can remove 62 kinds of radioactive substances from water. But the system is plagued by a number of troubles, dimming the prospects that it will go into full-scale operation. Even if ALPS becomes fully operational, it will be unable to remove radioactive tritium from the water.

Tepco also plans to start work in June to create a wall of frozen earth around the reactor buildings that will be 1.4 km long, 30 meters deep and 1 to 2 meters thick. It expects that this wall — to be completed in fiscal 2015 — and another plan to pump out groundwater will completely halt the flow of groundwater into the reactor buildings’ basements. But some experts remain skeptical that it will work as intended.

At the very least, Tepco should comply with the demands of the Fukushima fisheries federation, which include strictly adhering to the standards set for radioactive substances in water released into the sea and confirmation of the water’s safety by a third party. Tepco and the government should also remember that they have responsibility to the international community, too, and disclose all relevant information.