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The issue of what to do with the treated radioactive water being stored at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is nearing its boiling point. Despite plans to install more tanks by the end of the year, the plant’s operator is projected to run out of space around summer 2022.
The estimate by the plant’s manager, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., underscores the fast approaching deadline for the tanks, which now number 1,000.
For three years, an industry ministry panel has been examining five disposal methods for the treated water. In December the number of options was reduced to three: diluting it and dumping it into the sea; letting it evaporate; or a combination of both.
In a report to the government on Feb. 10, the panel recommended releasing the water into the ocean as a more “reliable” method than evaporation, given the practice is common at nuclear power plants here and around the world, and said radiation monitoring would be easier.
One of the major concerns, however, is whether it is safe to discharge the water, which is contaminated mainly with tritium that cannot be removed by ALPS, the advanced liquid processing system installed after the triple-core meltdown in March 2011.
Proponents insist dumping will be safe, arguing that tritium emits beta radiation so weak that the health risks posed will be minimal. The industry ministry estimates that even if all the stored water were to be released into the environment over a one-year period, the resulting radiation exposure would be less than a thousandth of that received from natural background radiation.
Both methods have track records.
Since both volume and radiation levels can be regulated, ocean discharge of tritiated water is a method routinely practiced at nuclear power plants around the world.
Despite scientists’ emphasis on safety, however, opponents argue that either method will again hurt Fukushima’s image, damaging the agriculture, fishing and tourism industries that were just starting to recover from the disaster. The panel noted that risk in its report.
Among Fukushima’s hardest-hit sectors since the disaster is the fisheries industry, which is vehemently opposed to ocean release. They fear the water dumps will ruin a nearly decadelong effort to restore the once-thriving industry, which was forced to halt or restrict operations in waters near the plant.
For the past nine years, fishermen have been conducting operations on a trial basis and measuring catches for radiation before shipping. Amid signs of a recovery, they are now talking about full resumption of fishing.
Because of deep-seated negative perceptions, however, some people still avoid buying fish from Fukushima.
The government is facing a difficult decision balancing the interests of the industries with the shortage of storage space.