Water tanks crowding the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant site
Here’s the problem in a nutshell—or rather a thimbleful—facing the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
There are over 1,100 large steel tanks brimming with filtered water—except for a low contaminant called tritium—clogging both the plant and an expanding area outside the site.
The water is a mix of tons of groundwater flowing into the plant’s basements and tons of contaminated water that have become radiated after draining down there through the three damaged reactors the water was injected into to keep the melted uranium cores cool. This lethal liquid mix is pumped out the basements and decontaminated before it overflows and seeps into the sea; some of it is recycled back as coolant into the reactors while the rest is pumped into the storage tanks.
This process continues hour after hour, day after day, year after year: a cunningly worthy punishment of the gods for the latter-day Sisyphus, TEPCO. Consequently, every week or two a new tank-full of treated water is added to the forest of steel now covering the area like giant alien mushrooms. The total amount of stored water exceeds 800,000 cubic tons and is inexorably heading for one million tons and more without an end in site.
The cost is enormous, and picking up the tab is the Japanese taxpayer—not TEPCO, which is undergoing a ten-year reconstruction since a government bail out saved it from bankruptcy.
So the million-ton-plus dilemma for the government has boiled down to three options: keep on with the endless and expensive tank building and filling; find a way to remove the tritium from the water; or have TEPCO discharge (dump) the water into the ocean.
The latter option is by far the easiest and least expensive method, except that the water is tritiated: that is the water has become radioactive.
Without context, that’s a scary word, until you remember that sunbathing and eating bananas are pleasant radioactive pastimes. The point being that the energy tritium gives off is so low as to be unmeasurable with a dosimeter. And the particles (not rays) tritium expels can be stopped by plastic wrap—as Shunichi Tanaka, head of Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority, told the press recently.
That’s a fact, but it’s not the point, say environmentalist foes of the dumping method. Ingesting tritium is a concern for health they argue. And they have experts to back up such concerns, though they are mostly theoretical. Meanwhile, there are experts on the other side of the debate pooh-poohing such worries and asking to see some solid proof to back up the theory.
Conclusion: Those supportive of nuclear power tend to minimize the health risks of tritium, while those opposing the use of nuclear power tend to exaggerate its risks.
What is not debatable is the negative psychological impact releasing the water into the sea will have on Japan’s nervous neighbors, the suffering people of the northeast, the region’s fishing industry and the Japanese electorate.
Given such concerns and uncertainties, organizations like Greenpeace urge the government to err on the side of caution. The best option, says Greenpeace, is to continue storing the water while exploring all technical options for tritium separation.
On the face of it, that seems reasonable. But then experts opposing this stance, like Lake Barrett, a nuclear industry consultant advising TEPCO, point out that while it may be possible to create a method of separating the tritium, it hasn’t been found yet, despite much effort; and it would likely cost a couple of billion dollars to develop and perfect in any case. It’s no surprise that TEPCO and the government have reached the same conclusion.
“All that money could be better spent on schools, hospitals,” Barrett told me. “And you can’t go on building tanks forever.”
Besides, he adds, “The very low levels of tritium in the stored water are not a meaningful health risk. After verification that the radioactivity levels are within conservative Japanese health risks, I would not hesitate to drink it, bathe in it, or eat fish or shellfish harvested from it.”
Now there’s an idea. If the government is to discharge the tritiated water into the ocean without turning a large portion of the electorate against it, it needs to persuade a majority of citizens that it is safe within reason to do so. This will require a number of carefully thought out steps.
The government will have to clearly explain the pros and cons of its action and the reason for its decision; it must establish a mechanism to compensate the fisherman for the shortfall they will undergo following the release; an international panel of independent, knowledgeable people, including environmentalists of the non-hysterical variety, is required to verify the tritiated water does indeed fall well below internationally accepted standards for release; and the panel members must be granted access to monitor the process at any time they wish.
Then for the coup de grâce, Prime Minister Abe, his cabinet members along with TEPCO executives should visit Fukushima Daiichi, and while standing in front of one the giant tanks each drink a glass of the tritiated water. This won’t sway everyone, of course, but it would give the government the minimum moral authority required to make such a contentious decision.
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