Nuclear tainted water a no-go

Nuclear tainted water a no-go

Early last month, Japan honoured the victims of a triple disaster in which over 20,000 people lost their lives. The catastrophic chain of events began with a 9.0-magnitude earthquake -- the Great East Japan Earthquake as it came to be known -- which caused a tsunami with 38-metre high waves which crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

To ensure the nation never forgets, Emperor Naruhito led a moment of silence while Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga lamented the loss of life and promised to continue rebuilding the region -- over US$300 billion (9.3 trillion baht) has already been spent on the effort. Unfortunately, the disaster's immediate human toll has largely been overshadowed by environmental concerns caused by the nuclear meltdown and the project to decommission the power plant from service, a process which is expected to take 30 to 40 years.

To retire the plant safely, Fukushima Daiichi's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) for years has pumped water into reactors to keep them cool. While effective, this process contaminates the water with radioactive nuclides such as tritium, which is harmful if ingested since it can increase chances of a person developing cancer.

Until recently, the contaminated wastewater was diverted to 1,000 storage tanks onsite but as they are reaching holding capacity, Tokyo announced last week plans to gradually discharge 1.25 million tonnes of wastewater into the Pacific. Although such a move had long been expected, it stoked the ire of environmentalists, local fishermen, and Japan's neighbouring countries.

Part of the outrage stemmed from Japan's decision to sideline other disposal options, such as evaporating the water or sending it to underground reservoirs. Instead, the government has said that dumping the water is cost-effective and "safe".

It even promised to further filter and dilute the wastewater to remove chemicals which emit harmful radiation prior to release. In fact, Japan feels so confident that it claimed if all the wastewater was released in a single year, exposure to radiation would not exceed 1/1,000th of natural exposure.

Although it is normal for nuclear plants across the world to discharge radioactive wastewater into oceans, Tepco's reputation is on shaky ground. Just last month, The Washington Post reported the company's claim that its treated wastewater contained only tritium -- a relatively weak radioisotope that cannot be removed from water -- was false as data found on the company's own website chronicled how the treatment process had failed.

On its own, tritium is a cause for concern. While it is routinely released by "healthy" nuclear plants in low concentrations, there are no such assurances regarding tritium levels in the water at the Fukushima plant. Moreover, in 2018, the company admitted that 70% of its stored wastewater was still contaminated with traces of other dangerous radioactive elements, such as the carcinogenic strontium-90, ruthenium, cobalt, and plutonium isotopes, which meant the water would have to be further diluted.

After such blatant lies, it would be hard to trust Tepco's assurances and promises. If the radioactive wastewater is going to be dumped in the ocean, a third party, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, should step in, run its own tests and oversee the entire process to ensure safety standards are met.

Besides water quality, there are concerns that dumping contaminated wastewater will negatively affect efforts to revive local economies in the disaster, especially the fishing industry.

The accident dealt a heavy blow to local agricultural and seafood manufacturers as domestic and international consumers shunned goods from the region. However, clean-up efforts have proven fruitful as some faith in local products has been restored. As noted by a survey earlier this year by the country's Department of Fisheries of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, half of all seafood processing plants have seen businesses recover to 80% of pre-disaster levels.

So, even if the water is released safely, the area may suffer from irreversible reputational damage. Due to these concerns, the plan has largely been slammed by the Japanese public, with a poll run by the Asahi Shimbun in January showing that 55% of respondents were against it.

Moreover, another pressing problem regarding Fukushima is the delayed 2020 Olympic Games. Since the region plans to host several events, there is worry that athletes might be unnecessarily exposed to radiation; another claim the government has dismissed.

The recent announcement has made one thing is clear -- it's that the water ultimately has to go somewhere. But with troubling details emerging about the safety of the wastewater, the Japanese government should rethink its plan to simply dilute the problem away.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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