Commentary / Japan

Why South Korea is wrong about Fukushima tritium

by Tomio Kawata

Contributing Writer

Eight years ago, Japan faced one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the world, the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. More than 18,000 innocent people either lost their lives or went missing, and Japan suffered extensive infrastructure damage, including the meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

The road to recovery has been long and is still ongoing, but Japan is resilient, and its strength will be made apparent on the world stage when Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Recently, there has been renewed attention paid to one of the crucial steps in the environmental remediation process of water from the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

In a claim made at the International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference in September, South Korea argued that the management of the water, which is generated mostly in the cooling process of the damaged reactors and fuel debris, is “a grave international issue that can affect the whole global marine environment,” and urged the IAEA to carry out further investigations “in objective and scientific ways.”

In October, South Korea attempted to raise similar concerns in different international forums that are not related to nuclear matters such as the meetings of the World Health Organization and of the London Convention which deals with dumping at sea.

No serious experts believe that South Korea is genuinely worried about the effect on the global ecosystem of water stored at the Fukushima site, which contains a quantity of the element known as tritium. This is partly because tritium is the least radioactive of all radioactive elements. James Conca, an environmental scientist and adjunct professor at Washington State University, argues that “tritium emits an incredibly weak beta particle that is easily stopped by our dead skin layer. It only goes a quarter-inch in air. Even ingestion of tritium doesn’t do anything.”

There is another aspect to this issue. Seoul’s accusation contradicts what South Korea’s nuclear industry has been doing for so long: discharging tritium-bearing water into the sea.

The inconvenient truth is that South Korea knows first-hand that tritium does not constitute a public health risk when released in water in a controlled manner. At Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant, South Korea has for years been operating CANDU reactors which produce more tritium than any other type of reactors, and has been discharging tritium-bearing water into the sea. In fact, the total amount of tritium released by the Wolseong power plant in the past two decades is much greater than the tritium in the water stocked at the Fukushima site.

Despite this, there has been very little, if any, public outcry against South Korea from its neighbors. Researchers agree that tritium discharge will not cause serious additional radiation exposure.

According to a Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission report on tritium releases, the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario, which is equipped with the same reactor type as the Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant, releases 600 to 800 terabecquerels of tritium per year, yet the report estimates that residents near the station will receive only an additional 0.0015 millisieverts of radiation dose per year. Comparing this to the worldwide average dose of 2.4 millisieverts per year from natural background radiation, one can conclude that the effect of the tritium discharge to human health is negligible.

An effort to tarnish Japan’s image in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is one thing, but misleading the public with unfounded claims that disregard science is quite another. While we are aware that the “love thy neighbor” tenet is rarely practiced by members of the international community, it’s time this neighbor realized the limits for such actions.

Tomio Kawata, a nuclear scientist, is a former executive director of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan.