The Argument is a feature dedicated to promoting dialogue and deeper understanding of contentious issues by introducing various viewpoints.
The clock is ticking to make a final decision on the treated radioactive water stored in the tanks at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
An industry ministry panel of experts recommended releasing the tritium-tainted water into the Pacific Ocean. The panel added that there’s little impact anticipated on the environment and human health. I support that position.
Some of the water tanks at the plant contain strontium and other more harmful radioactive elements that have not undergone further purification. In recent years, typhoons and earthquakes have highlighted the risk that those tanks could crack in the event of a natural disaster and spew the potentially dangerous water into the environment.
So in the long run, the release in the ocean after removing dangerous materials, using state-of-the-art technology, would help overcome reputational damage as well.
Though South Korea expressed environmental concerns at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s general assembly last September about the Fukushima water being released into the ocean, other countries that operate nuclear plants were rather cool-headed. If Japan gave a detailed explanation, sufficient international understanding could be gained for the release. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga earlier this month said that the explanation on the proposed release to embassy officials in Japan was mostly received without opposition.
It has become common practice for nuclear plants around the world to dump into the sea water tainted with tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that emits very low beta particles and cannot be separated from water under the current purification system, after dilution, based on standards set by each country. There’s no hazard posed by external radiation of tritium, which is similar to water and does not secrete into any particular organs in fish or humans through the food chain.
There are other countries that release much higher volumes of tritiated water to the ocean besides Japan. Besides Fukushima, Japan has discharged such water from other plants, and if we say no only in the case of Fukushima No. 1, that would be treating the plant differently than others and we cannot allow that to happen.
Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s purification machine, called ALPS, removes all radionuclides except tritium. The government’s proposal is to dilute the tritium-tainted water to meet the standards set under the law before discharging it into the sea.
The treated water has been building up because more than 100 tons of groundwater keeps seeping into the destroyed reactor basements every day, mixing with highly radioactive debris. The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc., has amassed more than 1 million tons of treated water in the tanks, and it will run out of room by the summer of 2022, a little over two years from now. The government would need a preparation period of around two years if it decided on the water discharge, so the hour has come for the final decision.
A simulation of what would happen to the people in Fukushima Prefecture should all of the approximately 860 trillion becquerels of tritium-tainted water be released slowly over one year after dilution showed the environmental impact would include radiation levels of between 0.052 and 0.62 microsievert a year, significantly less than those received from natural background radiation, diagnostic X-rays or air travel.
For example, in 2015, the La Hague nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in France discharged 13.7 quadrillion becquerels of tritium water into the sea. Tritium water stored at Fukushima is equivalent to roughly one month’s worth of water discharged there.
It is imperative to continue dialogue with the people in Fukushima because coastal nuclear plants around the world have been releasing tritium water based on agreements with local governments. I have visited the prefecture many times since I was a minister and I think there are more local residents who have come to think rationally about the issue.
I tackled the water issue directly when I served as the special adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan and later as the minister of the environment and minister of state for nuclear power policy and administration following 3/11. I feel partly responsible for leaving the water issue unresolved until now and want to help support the government reach a final decision, though I am not in the inner circle of those who will make that decision.
Looking back into the past, one thing I reflect on is how to deal with false rumors. More than eight years after the disaster, groundless rumors still abound, including those on treated water made by South Korea last year and a poster depicting a flame bearer in a protective suit at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium, which was made by a South Korean anti-Japan hate group, Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (VANK).
At the time I was directly involved in the issue, I focused on giving polite explanations because I thought it was the government’s responsibility for causing confusion following the disaster. But instead, I should have made a more forceful rebuttal then for people in Japan and abroad. It was around 2012 that I thought that the release into the ocean would someday become the most likely scenario for dealing with the mounting volumes of treated water at Fukushima. But at the time, we were still too preoccupied with getting the water issue under control, so I did not have time to talk about the discharge directly with the people in Fukushima.
The battle at the Fukushima plant was primarily with the contaminated water and I tried all possible measures to contain the contaminated water inside the plant. Managing the water issue following the March 2011 disaster was harder than I imagined it would be, and it still continues to put a lot of strain on the workers who engage in decommissioning work as tanks occupy a large space.
All possible measures have been exhausted to contain the water, including building an “ice wall” or drilling wells to keep groundwater from entering the reactor buildings, but almost nine years after the disaster, those measures alone are not enough. The time has now come to put an end to the issue and gain acceptance from the Japanese people and the world for a sea discharge just like at other nuclear plants.
We are not trying to do anything special at Fukushima. We are just asking to let Fukushima do what is done all over the world.
Goshi Hosono is an independent House of Representatives member who served as minister in charge of the response to the Fukushima nuclear crisis and environment minister from 2011 to 2012.